Thursday, December 4, 2014

Red and Pleasant Land Review

So I’ve been wondering for the past while, where exactly Zak Smith of Playing D&D with Pornstars has been putting his creative energies? His blog hasn’t had the same density and depth that it did in the past.  I mean mine hasn’t either, but that’s because I am getting lazy and burnt out, but that didn’t stop me from being hopeful that Mr. Smith was still producing content like a machine.  I was right to be hopeful, because today Smith’s long awaited Red and Pleasant Land - a setting book for The Land of Unreason was released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it was worth the wait.

I purchased the PDF, which isn’t especially cheap, but worth it given the size and quality of the product.  I am sure that the actual book will be even nicer, as LOTFP appears to have lavished a great deal of care on this product in addition to its normally phenomenal production values.  The PDF is nicely indexed and in vibrant full color at a high resolution with the art remaining pretty clear up to 200% size, so it’s about what should be expected from a high quality PDF.
Not sure if this is the best piece in Red and Pleasant Land, but it's my Favorite

I’m taking a little bit of extra time to discuss the quality of the PDF because the book feels more like an art book or the strange journals (especially in its early pages) of some kind of Art Brut genius like Henry Drager (albeit with no nude asexual/intersexed youth – in fact no art that could be deemed remotely offensive or gruesome), but more because one of the hallmarks of Smith’s obsessions with game book design is usability and usable presentation.  Red and Pleasant Land seems slightly less focused on experimental forms of usability then Smith’s prior book Vornheim, or he’s simply become more polished and clear about what exactly he considers good design.  On the aesthetic level Red and Pleasant Land is a success, even as a PDF it’s a very pretty book.  There are numerous illustrations throughout, both far more artful then those in most RPG books and consistently wonderful to look at.  The illustrations, like those in most RPG books, tend to be useful as concrete expressions of the fictional world, and all the more so here because they are the work of the writer.  Again this art is better to my eye than anything I’ve seen in a game book, because Smith is a very talented professional artist and unafraid to work in a style that is unique and quite far from the glossy concept art style of digital painting popular in most current high quality game products. I not against the art in the Fifth Edition of D&D, but it seeks to accomplish an entirely different thing then the work in Red and Pleasant Land which gives feeling and an emotional depth as well as a glossy surface appearance.  I was also happy to recognize a couple of OSR regulars drawn as various denizens of the Red & Pleasant Land – notably Ram of Save vs. Total Party Kill.  The art continues into the maps, where a focus on usability as well as appearance is clear.

The maps in Red and Pleasant Land are amazing, I’m unclear if they are all Smith’s work, and I understand some may be the work of Jez Gordan (he comments he drew up two maps - The Shoe Thief and the red interior maze one) who illustrates many high quality OSR publications in his own signature black ink style, including the new Death Frost Doom release. Regardless of their author the maps in Red and Pleasant land are interesting, eschewing grid lines and distances (you can easily crib it from the distance charts on each map, plus most rooms are square, if you’re playing a more tactical system) in favor of clear labels and notations about room inter-connectivity and contents.  These are functional maps, and incorporate a lot of elements that are worthwhile for game map design: elevation drawings of important vertical areas, notations of inhabitants and specific interesting features for the rooms and room labels rather than numbers.  Additionally the maps are repeated in smaller sections to accompany the keyed area text.  Design decisions like this make Red and Pleasant Land a highly usable game product, not just a strange and wonderful setting book.  More than a lot of game books, one could play a game directly from Red & Pleasant land without having to make GM maps, or copious notes.  Sure it’s not absolute – monster stats aren’t included in a condensed form in the in the room keys (meaning one has to note this down somewhere and can’t run the locations straight from the book without some page flipping), but all and all there is good information design in Red and Pleasant Land.  At first glance one might not think this as the book's aesthetic of dense cluttered art (just the art, the text is nice a and clear) and the hand written fonts on maps seem chaotic, but this is all a gloss (a nice setting appropriate one to my mind), and many a more staid adventure designer could learn a lot about functional information design from Red & Pleasant Land.  

Tables, and as an OSR/DIY D&D product there are plenty of random tables, have an efficient enough design to them – most are straight-forward, clear, fun (I always love a “I Search the Body” table and every setting should have one or more) and setting appropriate.  There are a few die drop charts and some nested tables, but nothing too complex or overwhelming (This city creation system by Logan Knight for example is far, far, far more complex than anything in Red & Pleasant Land – it is also great).  The tables are also useful, letting anyone generate setting specific locations and adventure randomly, a necessity for any setting/wilderness adventure book that seeks to have enough detail to be interesting and still cover a good sized region.    

The writing is also noteworthy, perhaps lacking the consistently magical transport that the words in Deep Carbon Observatory provide me, but amusing, whimsical and wry – great for the setting.  In the early overview parts of the book it tends to be more evocative and is quite fun to read simply for pleasure (assuming one likes reading about fantastical landscapes) with a good dose of humor to leaven the fundamental bleakness of a land ruled by insane vampires feuding over blood crumpets and imagined slights. In the more game content heavy sections of the book (the locations especially) the writing is terse and effective, with bullet points of room contents giving quick sketches of an area without much embellishment – aimed at clarity and gameable content rather than creating a sense of wonder.  This juxtaposition isn’t jarring though as the section create a clean split, and while the writing for the keyed locations may be terse and efficient there’s nothing boring, clichéd or simplistic about the content itself – the keyed locations are excellent with a great deal of strange, a large number of dangerous situations and a good number of details to wonder at.

Voivodja, The Red and Pleasant Land is a big place, and a dense place, full of faction conflict.  It is a forest and tangled gardens built into and above a fallen world sized castle and sprawling underworld.  It’s the kind of setting that would be impossible to write up in a comprehensive way using a traditional gazetteer and keyed location method.  Instead the book focuses on the social conflicts and interactions within the setting, provides several keyed locations (both important and mundane) and random generators to fill out the other areas.  Physically Red and Pleasant Land includes a few basic sections: an overview, a bestiary, a number of keyed locations and a section of optional rules and tables.  The sections work well together and give a solid feel for a very strange gaming setting – a successful amalgam of Dracula, dark fairy tale and Alice in Wonderland.  The overview section (for lack of a better description) spends more time on “customs” then it does on actual locations, and this is not a bad thing, as the customs the Red and Pleasant Land’s ruling elites, and their slow war make for solid adventuring hooks while grounding the reader in the strangeness of the setting.  The land itself has a few peculiarities (as mentioned it is built up in squares of ruined gardens in and atop a crumbled nation sized palace) that go a long way to establish flavor (as does the short but rather evocative random encounter table, where crocodiles are encountered in almost every biome – undoubtedly behaving in a less then crocodilian manner much of the time) and more of its details are found in the adventure locales later in the book.  The overview that isn’t dueling rules and discussions of the Heart Queen’s maliciousness and tendency to hire ‘wicket hunters’ during week long croquet matches,  is more a primer in the basic strange geometries and feel of the environment, and includes some useful advice on how the Land, also called Voivodja, should be run as a point crawl and social dungeon of quests, relationships, factions and double-crosses.  This is all excellent advice for running a game free of the classic hexcrawl constraints of a slowly revealed map and random locations. 

The Bestiary section is excellent, and describes not only the wildly inventive monsters of the Red and Pleasant land, but their faction loyalties and interrelation.  Many of these creatures are unique NPC, powerful, strange and with uniquely amusing mechanics.  Many are also vampires – in fact that’s the secret of Red and Pleasant Land – it is both the story of the children’s whimsy of a world where the queen of cards battles the king of chess, and the setting of a vampire thriller where Count Dracula and Countess Bathory (a vampire version of course) connive for supremacy, while their vampire courts run rampant across the land in search of fresh blood.  The bestiary is the heart of the Red and Pleasant Land, because the setting is more about social relationships and encounters, with players exploring the hierarchies of four vampire courts, then it is about exploration of dungeons and wide lands.  The monster write ups reflect this, spending far more time on the attitudes of and interactions one might have with these monsters then on their stats in any technical sense.  Simple mechanics and the annoyingly unkillable nature of vampires  (though there are distinct ‘staking’ rules and ‘vampire bite’ rules here)make many of the more common creatures quite terrifying, the Rooks of all vampire factions (basically their heavy hitting brute monsters) are especially awful in a variety of ways.  The only limitation on this bestiary is that it would be hard to pull beasts from to use in another setting – sure the aquatic vampires could appear as agents of a sinister Voivodjian power in your setting’s capitol, and taking a cue from Smith’s near total reskinning of vampires to create your own orders and hierarchies of evil would be rewarding, but just dropping a riddling Red Rook on the random encounter table of your Phandelver game would be hard.  The consistency and in interrelation between the elements of the setting, a concealed order within an absurd seeming fantasy world, are a strong point for Red and Pleasant Land, but perhaps make it less immediately adaptable then a lot of game content.

Beyond the Bestiary is a Section of several adventure locales, the two castles/palaces of the main factions and a few smaller drop in adventures that exemplify the setting.  The large adventures are full of strange time and space distorting maps, chess puzzles, riddle games, and plenty of vampires.  Indeed the larger locations suppose a high level party to have a chance of winning the combat, 11th level seemed reasonable in a playtest I participated in a long while ago, but the setting as a whole is accessible for all levels. Additionally since everything is novel and new (except some random encounters with beasts and basic humanoids) changing the level of opposition shouldn’t be especially.  

The smaller adventure locales are simply rather wonderful maps with notes written on them.  This isn’t to say these locations aren’t useful, but they are more one page dungeons than anything else - less fully keyed locations them a set of notes that should be sufficient for running a session with some improvisation or preparation.

Finally, the most mechanically dense section of Red and Pleasant Land is its Optional Rules section.  The rules are largely useful and mechanically simple relating to large scale combat.  The tables afterward are much more interesting, and really allow a GM who has read the rest of the book to create Voivodja as needed.   Adventure Hook Tables, annoying conversation starters, landmarks for the three basic biomes (forest, garden and interior) and encounters/events for the same.  It is this last set of tables, titled “Instant Locations” that provide a very useful way of creating Voivodja a session at a time with minimal effort on the GM’s part.  With a sufficient knowledge of the evocative setting one can roll something like this and easily flesh it out:

Seriously 25 of the 30 minutes were this map

This took about 30 minutes – mostly doodling.

The locale is a piece of garden (1) where the forest is starting to overtake the greensward (2) but has stopped at a ruin leading into an interior flooded with crystal clear poison waters. A Bridge (3) crosses a crocodile infested canal and meets a mossy brick path that leads to a gazebo (4) where the Pale King’s Astronomer is cowering amongst the soggy ruins of his lunch (stale blood pastries and cold sausages) from two days before.  He has been driven out of his tower (5) by a pack of Jub (which he is inexplicably afraid of, muttering something about them being “twin stealing, cradle robbing vermin”) and is anxious to return (having cowered under the table cloth of his luncheon from the sun for the past two days) to his tower and work.  The Astronomer will offer anyone who drives off the Jub a lovely astrolabe, similar minor magic/valuable item, or even perhaps a set of notes about an upcoming lunar eclipse that would absolutely ruin the Heart Queen’s current croquet game.  The Astronomer recently caught a pair of Hearts (their ponies now roam the garden) sneaking about his tower in the twilight, and impaled (6 – he’s only really afraid of Jub) them in an area of the garden that is unstable (7) – the sutured land, where the thick lawn is held together by huge stitches and staples and supported by a mess of rusty pillars.  The Astronomer hopes to lure the last Heart spy (8) who is atop a rickety stair with a spyglass into this trap.  The spy waits, seeking the notes on the eclipse for the Heart King and Knave who hope to mitigate and/or channel the Heart Queen’s rage when the moon goes out on the 137th wicket.  He will pay well for these notes in favors and can easily have the information that other parties (he works for both the Knave and the King, though neither know that) want the notes bullied out of him.

I am departing from my normal Good/Bad/Reskin methodology for reviewing Red & Pleasant Land because I generally think it’s excellent, if eclectic, and my only complaint is this very excellence and inventiveness.  Oh there are a couple of typographical errors here and there, I think the March Hare is ascribed to the wrong house, and there are some odd spacing decisions here and there - but this is nothing out of the ordinary for the first edition of even a well edited, well laid out book.  As to Reskinning, while many ideas can be taken from Red and Pleasant Land and easily adapted to another game world, Voivodja is itself so distinctive and textured that reskinning it would be almost impossible to do well.  The eclectic nature of Voivodja and the amazingly refreshing creativity behind the environment will make one want to fit it in some corner of one’s game world, where it will sit and slowly creep into the rest of it until you are playing Red and Pleasant Land.  It’s that good a product, its danger is viral.  Conversely Red and Pleasant Land is a novel and startlingly interesting take on fantasy – a bit of the Mieville New Weird, and a touch of the gruesome “Scandinavian metal” dressing that LOTFP is known for, but a refreshingly large dose of the whimsical.  Most things and creatures in Voivodja operate on twisted, implacable fairytale logic, and while other game products have claimed to exist in a more fairytale then fantasy (meaning Tolkien pastiche) world, the small mechanical changes, like the magical size rules, within Red and Pleasent Land, and the various customs and factions really do manage an ugly fairytale setting that is neither clichéd or gonzo (in the sense of seeming like an 80’s cartoon) and appears new and unique.

Yet, one of the large problems with game worlds that are new and unique, and the reason that most strange new settings fail to find an audience is that the ideas within are too eclectic and unique, requiring a great deal of backstory – wisely (or luckily?) Red and Pleasant manages to attach itself to already existing fantasy worlds without leaning on the standard Tolkien or Swords and Sorcery fare.  The setting  manages to be largely about vampires without feeling remotely like Ann Rice or Twilight (That is none of these vampires are misunderstood or troubled – they are monsters, and yet noble refined monsters with a deal to offer), because it adheres to the creepier 19th century horror implicit in Dracula, but dresses it up in the trappings of Carroll’s children’s absurdist fantasy.

I want to say something critical and balancing, as I have about other great products (Like Deep Carbon Observatory), but all I can muster is that if the idea of throwing aside most of the high fantasy trappings of table top roleplaying game world design is too scary or would annoy your players then Red and Pleasant Land may kill your campaign, because it is greedy with your attention and throws out the standard fantasy tabletop cliches and tropes.  Red an Pleasant Land seems like the sort of setting that will have repercussions in a staid fantasy setting, even if it’s just set at the end of the map, because the GM will want to have Red Knights sidling through mirrors to commit atrocities, and Byronic Pale Knights lurking in lonely towers challenging any who cross the moors at night to a joust – with the prize being a map or mirror portal to Voivodja.   

1 comment:

  1. So you're saying that Zak has written a meta-fiction? That he has constructed a setting about vampires that is itself vampiric; that will make your campaign its thrall? That it's Orqwith?


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