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The Dungeon Dozen
by George M. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 04/21/2020 18:45:20

It's very OSR in a gonzo sort of way, but the ideas and inspiration flow fast and strong. Highly reccomended for most any underground fantasy venue- it will keep your players on their toes.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Dungeon Dozen
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Azurth Adventures Digest Issue 1
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/02/2019 09:36:48

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The first (and so far, alas, only) installment of this ‘zine depicting the lands of Azurth, a hilarious take on fantasy as seen through the lens of old-time Loony Toons/Tex Avery clocks in at 36 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page of SRD, 3 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 30 pages, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!

We begin this ‘zine with an introduction by the commodore Cogburn Steamalong, a navy captain who also happens to be a steam construct, and who proceeds to present comments on the material provided within. This character is also fully statted with a proper statblock; that being said, the HDs are missing from the write-up, and the Perception values are incorrect. This, unfortunately, is bound to be symptomatic for the remainder of the ‘zine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: The pdf begins play with 4 different islands, the Motley Isles, and the brief gazetteer is actually really nice and playful, and the whole section is supplemented by a new creature, the dread Frogacuda! This statblock is mechanically the best thing in the ‘zine – it’s a solid write-up and gets all the math right. It also fits in well with a region that has a settlement governed essentially by ritualistically consulting a magic eightball. In these instances, the supplement feels very much like someone had made a Monkey Island/D&D-crossover. A fluff-only pirate generator is also included – 24 names, 24 occupations, 12 notable traits and 12 trinkets act as a solid little supplement. A pirate captain generator with 12 names, 12 ship-names, 12 instances of stuff the captain is known for and 12 pieces of exotic beauty makes for the second generator.

The pdf also includes notes on the homelands of frogfolk (here called “frox”), the chain of fools (An archipelago where you don’t want to tread), a massive mechanical fish. Weird indigenous bird-people “amazons” (well, kind of…) in service to a male priest caste may be found, and the pdf contains 10 smaller entries as well – it should be noted that both Motley Isles and the Candy Isle, which acts as a module of sorts, come with nice full-color artworks. There are no keyless, player-friendly versions included.

The following discussion of the Candy Isle does contain a few minor SPOILERS. Potential players may want to jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? So, the Confection Perfection is basically a divine pastry, and it acts as a linchpin for the angle to explore the location – the Candy Isle! This region, including all of its inhabitants, is made of sweets. The indigenous gummy people (shown on the cover) are an interesting angle, and we do get top-down AND side-view map versions of their temple – once more without a player-friendly version. The mini-module does not have read-aloud text, but does note random encounters. The general presentation is nice, though the set-up would have benefited from a bit more space. And yes, they do want to sacrifice the PCs on their chocolate-y altar. /SPOILERS

That being said, the module also exemplifies well a misconception that is common for designers coming from old-school games to 5e, namely that an abbreviated statblock suffices. They do not, and I don’t get why this booklet doesn’t provide properly presented and laid out crunch when it has proven that it well can. To give you an example, you can read the following: “Melee brittle candy spear (+3, 1d6+1/1d8+1 piercing), Ranged (+3 1d6+1); S +1, D +0, C +1, I -1, W +0, Ch -1;“ You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to notice that the ability scores are missing, and that statblock formatting is not even close to acceptable. There also are errors in these shortened statblocks, and this puzzling inconsistence annoyingly also applies to two sample NPCs, who also get the formatting of features wrong – when the very same booklet offers two instances where they’re correct. I don’t get it. At all. And yes, these NPCs also have more relevant errors in their stats.

Conclusion: Editing is very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, there are a lot of glitches herein – much more than in Mortzengersturm. Formatting, as noted, often needlessly diverges from established 5e-standards. Layout adheres to a nice two-column standard that is mostly b/w, but uses full-color for boxes, maps, etc. – this is a surprisingly nice-looking book, courtesy of Jeff Call’s neat artwork. The cartography by Jeff Call and Jason Sholtis is also nice and full-color, though the lack of player-friendly versions is a bummer. I do not own the print version, so I can’t comment on it. The pdf lacks any type of bookmark, making navigation an unnecessary hassle.

Trey Causey can do better. This digest, alas, while amazing and funny regarding its ideas and creativity, is mired with an unfortunate amount of errors in the rules, non-standard rules-syntax and things that Mortzengersturm did better. I want to like Azurth as a setting, and I genuinely do and want to see more, but this digest, alas, remains a flawed supplement. Add to that the lack of bookmarks, and we have a bit of an issue on our hands. And I really wish this wasn’t the case.

The supplement perfectly shows that it can get 5e right, only to then shrug and fiddle those inconsistent half statblocks together, to botch math etc. Much like the candy theme, this started with a smile, and then proceeded to develop into a moderate tummy-ache for me. That being said, this is still an inexpensive supplement with great ideas – I just wished their implementation had been better. My final verdict, alas, can’t exceed 3 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Azurth Adventures Digest Issue 1
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Mortzengersturm, The Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 07/31/2019 06:55:49

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 38 pages, 1 page page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 35 pages of content, so let’s take a look

So, did the cover remind you of old Tex Avery cartoons or old-school loony toons that were fun and not necessarily politically correct? Well, then you’ve nailed the aesthetics of this adventure. The art by Jeff Call is nigh perfect for the novel and interesting take herein that consciously draws upon quite a few nostalgic components – Mortzengersturm does look a bit like a lion king-usurper planning on establishing a 1000-year reich of hyena. (As an aside – the Icelandic version of “Be prepared” does indeed quote a 1000-year reich, so I’m not drawing this comparison out of my own behind.)

The prismatic peak mentioned in the title is btw. a n oblique, massive prism, with the fortress on top. Nominally intended for 3rd level characters, the adventure is on the easier side, provided the PCs don’t try to murder-hobo everything. The module can result in PCs dying, but as a whole, it is not too tough.

Beyond being often genuinely FUNNY and quirky, the module does another aspect of module design that we only rarely get to see – it presents a pretty well-wrought linear railroad. This module is not about emergent gameplay, instead opting more for a type of fun ride. This is also enforced by Mortzengersturm providing basically a kind of guided tour that is represented as a kind of unique boardgame-like alternate map. I liked this as a notion.

Formally, the module sports a few instances of read-aloud text for singalong and to help the GM get an inkling of how Mortzengersturm acts, of his colossal ego, but as a whole, the module requires that the Gm conveys the quirky and funny aspects of this adventure properly. The module has quite a lot of blank space available to the on each page, as it adheres to a one-column standard; however, the module uses this room wisely, providing short-hand abbreviated statblocks, brief dressing tables and the like. Much to my pleasant surprise, the module gets one thing right that many OSR publishers designing for 5e botch – the full and proper stats (for saves, etc.) are presented in the back of the module, providing the useful abbreviated stats where required in the module, while also sporting the full stats, should you require them. I like this. Considering this, it’s kinda puzzling that not all of the relevant stats are presented in their full array.

There is another aspect that the module gets formally right in a pretty nice manner, only to fall slightly short of excellence – that would pertain the 8 pregens. The pregens are conceptually awesome. There is an asterian (Jetson-like robot lady) monk; a frogling, a dwarf called “Minmaximus” (you see, dwarves are pretty feeble in the setting) etc. – all come with their own artworks and are genuinely cool. Features have their names bolded, but not italicized; spells are erroneously bolded; and worse, we don’t get proper ability scores, just the modifiers noted. The pregens are great for convention play and do their job for a oneshot, but considering how unique their angles are, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied by their rudimentary depiction. Reading that roguish archetype for a character would be player’s choice, but should be one that grants spellcasting also irked me – it defeats the purpose of pregens to, you know, think about how to build your PC. I did notice a couple of instances where the rules of the statblocks may or may not be correct, as with what’s here, it’s impossible to adequately reverse-engineer the material reliably.

It should be noted that the module does contain a brief sneak-peak of Yanth country, a unique region in the realms of Azurth. As noted before, this is a fun-house-like ride, and as such, the module makes no qualms about its primary hook, getting the Whim-Wham stone, being a pretense – alternative hooks are also provided, but ultimately, this module is all about meeting an oh-so-civilized and only slightly cannibalistic wizard-turned-manticore.

From here on out, the SPOILERS will reign. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great, so the PCs ascend the peak via the surprisingly fast Snailevator. Parrot-faced hippogriffs and a patented evil-guy-screen guard the entrance, faced by sunflowers with unblinking eyes inside – eye-rises, one of Mortzengersturm’s creations. Goblin cooks and magical food ingredients/spices (such as slow thyme, which can, you know, slow targets…) may be found as well – the goblins being blue, as Mortzengersturm has modified their goblin smile vats. (As an aside – the artwork is just adorable, and goblins herein are played for laughs in a pretty cool way!) I mentioned that this is funny – and this extends to the hippogriffs: You see, at one point, the PCs can save a horse from being eaten by them, but said being is actually a dwarf polymorphed into horse form.

At the end of Mortzengersturm’s self-indulgent tour of his genius, of boasting and self-aggrandizement, he’ll inevitably attempt to dump the PCs in a pit where failed experiments await – the monsters faced here are actually menchanically-interesting. From the gruebird to a naga/clown-crossover (the Mocka), the module sports quite a lot of delightful monsters.

A boogeyman may be encountered, and there is a former Chantreuse, now washed up and turned vampire who may come originally from our world. And yeah, treating her with respect is a very smart idea . Did I mention the Spider from nowhere, who can only spell his words? Well, there are a ton of such creative NPCs herein. This is chock-full with great ideas and genuinely amusing and novel ideas, presenting a type of fantasy I haven’t seen before.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level – for the most part, the module does a good job regarding both, but it also sports a few instances where it blunders in the details. If you don’t mind minor hiccups, you’ll have no trouble using this module. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard, with the original artwork lending a great and unique visual style to the module. I can’t comment on the print version, as I do not own it. The pdf, in a totally jarring decision, lacks bookmarks, making navigation a pretty big pain. I strongly suggest printing this when running it.

Trey Causey’s first trip to Azurth is a module I’d love to recommend more unanimously that I ultimately can. I absolutely adore the Tex Avery/loony toons-angle regarding aesthetics, and this is a genuinely funny adventure with a unique villain that could come straight out of a classic cartoon. The unique monsters and cool locations are like a highlight reel, and from vaults to NPCs, this is brimming with passion and cool ideas – to the degree where the adventure actually makes a linear module work.

That being said, there are a few rough patches in the pregens, there are no player-friendly versions of the maps, and there are no bookmarks for the electronic version. All in all, these factors conspire to make it impossible for me to rate this as highly as I’d like to, and thus, I can’t go higher than 4 stars. However, for presenting a novel and indeed, inspired type of fantasy, this does get my seal of approval in spite of its shortcomings.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Mortzengersturm, The Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak
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What Ho, Frog Demons
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/06/2019 08:08:32

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The fourth Hill Cantons book clocks in at a massive 112 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 106 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair review. My review is primarily based on the print version, to be precise, on the full-color version. That POD-version has one full-color artwork inside, but uses a better quality of paper, so personally, I’d recommend paying the extra buck for the better quality paper. Unlike previous Hill Cantons-books, this one does have proper bookmarks, making navigation of the pdf version, which I also consulted, painless and simple.

Now, if you’ve been following my reviews of the Hill Cantons books, you’ll know that I am a fan of these strange books; if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll know that the previous releases include the wilderness area of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the city-supplement Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and the Misty Isles of the Eld.

Rules-wise, this employs the Labyrinth Lord rules, which means use with B/X is painless, and conversion to other OSR rules isn’t too difficult either. The overall region depicted is best suited for low to mid-level play, and the two adventure-locations included are designated for 4 – 7 characters level 2 – 4. It should be noted that one of these locations is much more dangerous than the other; indeed, the fully-fleshed out locations can be rather deadly and will probably serve to challenge higher level parties as well with minimal fuss.

This book, then presents the hexcrawl umbrella-setting that includes all of these previously-released locations and more, contextualizing them in the greater canton; there is no content overlap with these previous releases.

I’d be somewhat hard-pressed to find a common theme between the Hill Cantons books released so far; while Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld both feature a somewhat psychedelic metal aesthetic with some surreal components and pretty subdued pop culture references, Marlinko as a city and its content was more gonzo and tongue-in-cheek. This book, then, is closest to Fever-Dreaming Marlinko in theme, in that is it stuffed to the brim with nerd-culture references, particularly regarding the (OSR-)roleplaying scene, and can be designated as capital letters GONZO.

This book does not necessarily take itself all too seriously, and as such, whether this hits the spot for you, humor-wise, will determine significantly how much you enjoy this. It should be noted that the book does include profanity, so if you’re sensitive to the like or easily offended, you will have chances to take umbrage here.

It should be noted that the following does contain SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. . Only referees around? Great!

All right, before we get into the nit and grit of the material herein, it should be noted that the book contains a “bucolic village generator”, which includes a name-generator (including inappropriate monikers), strange villager quirks. These are…well…quirky. To give you an example from the table:

“Sad-faced men and bright-cheeked wives paint bluebirds and vampires and pig designs on sandals. Every sunset and every sunrise the men are strapped to holy cows and spanked with the sandals. The villagers are adamant that this keeps the vampire pigs away.” If this made you smile, then chances are that this has quite a lot to offer. The generator also includes d8 rustic and strange characters, 20 misadventures to have around the canton villages and even a proper carousing table.

The book also contains a bestiary section, which features the alkonost, a giant bird with a long neck and the head of a woman, and an entrancing and dangerous song that makes the listener forget progressively more of their own being. The bukavac is a pretty hilarious (and deadly) predator: The hexapod attacks in a unique manner. To quote the book: “The bukavac attacks by jumping above its chosen target and, bizarrely hanging in midair, pounding them to a pulp with its six feet. The resulting red ruin is then scooped up by its long tongue. This jump is invariably accompanied by the joyous hell-scream of “BWAAAAHHH!” – theoretically charming, if it were not for the carnage that near-invariably follows.” In case you haven’t noticed: Yes, this book is suffused with a lush and precise prose that often manages to blend the creative with the hilarious. Few books over the years have entertained me to this extent. The book also provdes stats for the dwarf-hobbit crossbreed Kudůki, characterized by extreme identity-confusion. Robo-dwarves and vodnik alongside wereworms (with a nightmare-fuel artwork) may be food, and of course, there are frog-demons to be found. Quite a few of them, actually. (As an aside: There will be a stand-alone supplemental Frog Demon generator at one point, but so far, the hydras haven’t finished it.)

And then there would be the deodands. As a fan of Vance’s writing, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the hydras managed to score the rights for the inclusion of this cult critter. But they are indeed played for laughs, and in a way that may break the immersion of some folks. There is, for example, a purple-skinned variant, the zeodand, that targets folks with sophistry and useless arguments. Oh, and the main lure of deodands? They try to lure in folks with time-share offers. No, I am not kidding.

See, and this is, kinda, where the book loses me. I’m not embroiled within the politics and bickering that one can see in the roleplaying game scene, at least not to the extent that others are. And still, I found a metric ton of wink-wink-nudge-nudge “eastereggs” – of course, there is the Staff of the Ragygi as a treasure. It can, oddly, be used to backstab, and lets the wielder cast Nystul’s Magical Kickstarter, which works as Magic Aura. …if you didn’t get why this somewhat annoyed me, you have more of a life outside of RPGs than I do. ;P Kidding aside, there are a TON of those wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments; more so than even in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and here, they somewhat…bothered me. Unlike in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, there is no dungeon made on a weird character’s concept from the Hill Cantons campaign. (Though there are plenty of notes how stuff from that game worked out – this time around, I considered these tidbits to be inspiring!) Instead, we have a ton of such meta-jokes.

The per se challenging Frog Demon Temple, for example, has a sidebar that displays “D10bestsellers of Hot Hell” that includes “Three Word Title: A Guide to the Naming of Products Auteur and Ludic” or “The Iron Doom Crawling Red Monolith of the Cursed Pod-God Maze.” Did these make me chuckle? Yes. Yes they did. Heck, we even get an artwork of the cover of “Applied Hedonics”, which made me grin indeed. None of these meta-jokes are bad; they’re genuinely funny. There simply are…so…many…of them, that it started to break my immersion. Seeing an illustrated frog demon idol that looks like Kermit? AWESOME. Aforementioned jabs and meta-jokes? Cool. But their accumulation can start to wear on you.

This is purely my personal opinion, but I think the Hill Cantons are better when their humor is less in your face; it’s the contrast between the regularly fantastic and the gonzo strangeness that makes them work; for me, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld hit a better balance there. This, however, is, and let me emphasize that, HIGHLY subjective. It may also be a genre thing – I tend to mind such references less in scifi or space opera games than in fantasy. So no, this will not negatively influence the final verdict, but for once, I found myself wishing I got less of the allusions and references herein.

Now, I briefly mentioned that the book does mention in a few places how it worked in the original Hill Cantons game: One such example would be Bad Rajetz, a settlement known for the production of fetish-wear, which, alongside the condo-reference, was the second jarring anachronism that I really didn’t like. (And I’ve been practicing BDSM for the better part of my adult life) – it just comes out of nowhere. The notes here state that the factions in the original game had a 4-way Red Nails-ish standoff, which frankly made me want to see that adventure, that context. Instead, I got a throwaway anachronism-oh-so-quirky line.

On the huge plus-side of things, there is a ton to be loved herein as well: We have an inconvenient, but immaculately-constructed highway fashioned by Hyperboreans; we have strange signposts that are rumored (accurately, as it turns out!) to be cursed. We have some of the best rumor-sections I have read in any book – false components are italicized for your convenience, and most rumors are actually pretty damn creative and oftentimes funny adventure hooks that tie in with the other Hill Canton books. Such references are clearly and precisely noted, which brings me to the component of usability – this book is extremely well-crafted in that context. You won’t need to do a lot of flipping back and forth, with stats noted where required, important information highlighted by being bolded, clever use of italics, etc. As one minor formal complaint, three “see p. XX”-remnants have remained within the book.

The book, somewhat like Marlinko, also features an array of truly intriguing encounters, both for the individual locales and for the cantons in general. From the war-bear PREVED! (who likes to intrude upon humans in certain circumstances, yelling at the top of his lungs) to the daughter of freakishly honest and racist Fraza, the characters succeed at the great tightrope act of being both intriguing and amusing. A lady with a hierarchy of husbands who then ritually consume the least favored husband, strange trees, the horned oracle “Ozbej the Gighacksian” (yep, another wink-wink-nudge-nudge-moment), talking badgers, a context for the FREE “Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid” and more may be found. It is impossible to even touch upon all the components herein without bloating this review beyond any usefulness.

So, let us talk about the adventure sites: The Frog Demon Temple is a straight-forward dungeon-crawl, and I’ve touched upon some of its peculiarities before; it is intended to be deadly; the PCs may or may not take a brief trip to a salon where frog demons lounge in the Hot Hells and, in a cool angle, finding one of the primary hooks for the dungeon exploration is actually pretty difficult.

The second fully-fleshed out scenario would be more unique – it is a genuine horror-satire, and it WORKS. It lampoons its genre just enough, stays serious and dangerous just enough, to be one of the precious few instances where a satire adventure actually is properly playable, fun to play, funny, and challenging. You see, Ritek, son of Ritek, doesn’t have an easy life. Being secretly an evil priest is hard, particularly when your second half is also…evil. The constant complaints about a lack of social advancement, about sufficient self-case, etc. made him snap one day. ““Did you remember to send the gilt-and-gore-edged invitations to the latest moonlight coven coffee and cake soirée to the Lumpeks, the Neprespans, and those neophyte Novaks?” In a midlife crisis moment of rage, Ritek slew his wife Maliska, buried her, and inadvertently created a funnel for a demonic spirit to inhabit a beet, which then proceeded to grow to monstrous proportions. When the village foreman attempted to…ähem…do things with the beet, he became BEETNIK ZERO!

And thus, we have a beet spawn epidemic that will slowly consume…not much, beyond a few backwater villages and folks. The folks in the hill cantons are incompetent, but not THAT incompetent. The bumbling evildoer’s wife is now a harmless ghost and tries to pin the infection on Ritek, while the demonic beet seeks to spread its influence! Today, the sty, tomorrow the world! The book presents an index that allows for the simple tracking of how far the beet infection/cult has spread, and the fields of the hamlet Ctyri Ctvrt is depicted in a modular point crawl, which allows you t use it an infection index 0 (boring hamlet mode) and at higher infection levels. There is, much to my groaning, an Onionator to be encountered. (This, once more is something that, while kinda funny, I could live without. This is just “lol, oh so random” – it’s trying too hard.) On the plus-side, even though the book does make fun of the notion, there is a sidebar that proposes 5 “Jane Austen – unglamorous backwater edition”-style sidequests I found hilarious and fun it their relatable pettiness.

The PCs can witness a ginormous Beaver that is regularly renewed by beavers, tuber-beetles and cows as a result of the infection, and obviously, time is of the essence. Beyond the general environment, the more detailed aspects of this part of the book are fully mapped as well, making this one of the precious few genuinely awesome and replayable funny adventures I’ve read over the year. And yes, it can be played as creepy. In fact, I’d recommend in favor of playing this with a straight face – makes for a great contrast to the outrageous and gonzo angle.

As a whole, I consider both detailed locations to be resounding successes, which continues the trend started in Misty Isles of the Eld, where the individual adventure locations started to become as awesome as the general setting/world/wilderness.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level, with only very few typo/oversight-level snafus. On a rules-language level, the book is precise and well-wrought. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard without much frills, and the book has A LOT of awesome, original b/w-artworks. The cartography in b/w is similarly great, but much to my chagrin, we do not get player-friendly, unlabeled versions to print out or use in conjunction with VTTs. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked (FINALLY!), and the perfect bound softcover features the title on the spine. On my copy, a bit of the color bled to the spine, but that’s just cosmetic.

Chris Kutalik has a thoroughly unique voice, and Luka Rejec (also responsible for the artworks) makes for a great co-author. This book, as a kind of encompassing regional source/adventure-book, had a tougher job than the previous Hill Canton books, and as such, it is fascinating to note how good it is. Extremely usable, this DRIPS ideas on every page, with easily half a year worth of surreal and fantastic gaming, at the very least, that can be wrung from its pages.

That being said, I am pretty sure that this book will be more divisive than the other Hill Canton books. It is very strongly tongue-in-cheek, and not everybody will consider the sheer sequence and extent of insider-jokes and meta-humor to their liking. Personally, I vastly preferred the Misty Isles of the Eld’s balance there. That being said, humor is very subjective.

As a reviewer, this leaves me with the formal criteria, and frankly, I found myself positively surprised by both adventure locales. The horror-satire module is genius and exceedingly fun and funny; the dungeon-crawl may be the strongest dungeon featured in the whole of the Hill Cantons books so far, provided you can stomach the insider jokes. Still, this is one excellent book, and one that has a voice unlike any other; it attempts a tone we usually do not get to see, and in the instances it succeeds, it does so triumphantly – to the degree where, frankly, I consider this a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018 in spite of its humor not always hitting home for me. It is different, creative and plain fun, and perhaps, just perhaps, the roleplaying games scene needs more books like this; books that drive home that we shouldn’t always take our little elfgames too seriously and embrace what they are…fun. Unsurprisingly, my final verdict will be 5 stars, and this does get my seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
What Ho, Frog Demons
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Misty Isles of the Eld
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 02/26/2019 04:04:57

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The third of the Hill Cantons-Sandboxes clocks in at 103 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 97 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so theoretically, you can fit up to 4 pages on a given sheet of paper when printing this. HOWEVER, I STRONGLY suggest getting the PoD-version. The pdf lacks bookmarks, which is a huge downside for a book of this size. I do own the PoD-version, which btw. comes with name on the spine and all, and the review is primarily based on that version of the book, though I did consult the pdf as well.

So, what is this? One could consider this to be a cross between a regional sourcebook of a plug-and-play mini-setting/environment, a pointcrawl adventure, and/or a massive ecology of the eponymous eld. All of these are true to an extent. While nominally, the module component of this supplement is intended for 4 – 7 PCs, with a total of 14 – 20 levels, the misty isles can easily challenge higher-level PCs, particularly if they’re not smart. A referee could easily escalate things, just fyi. Rules-wise, this has been written for use with labyrinth Lord and B/X and is easily adapted to other OSR rules-sets.

While this adventure/sandbox takes place in the Hill Canton world, unlike Slumbering Ursine Dunes and the Fever-Dreaming Marlinko supplement, it may be inserted more easily into other worlds: Shrouded by mists, the eponymous isle can replace other components of the campaign setting in an invasive manner not unlike Ravenloft; indeed, traversing the mists (which is codified in rules) is a risky endeavor, and has a good chance of wrecking the PC’s vessel.

This is, however, where similarities with Ravenloft cease. The supplement calls this chart btw. the “Fuck, we sailed into the mist”-chart. So yeah, this does include vulgarity, PG 13 references to sexuality, and has a tone that is firmly tongue in cheek, but without ever becoming annoying. This is pretty impressive, as usually, opinionated writers constantly interjecting stuff into their works tends to annoy me to hell and back. Here, the metacommentary is left firmly on the referee-side of things, and actually managed to make the reading experience here more fun. One favorite to give you an example, drawn from the description in a creature table: “Hell-Marines are as subtle as a second edition plotted adventure. “ If that didn’t get a laugh or at least chuckle out of you, then you never played a 2nd edition plotted adventure. ;P

One of the reasons this works so well is the fact that the eld are depicted as pretty much absolutely HORRIFIC. Capital letters EVIL. Yet also kinda hilarious. Tonal control, though? It rests solely in the hands of the GM. You could emphasize the darker aspects and make this a grimdark, surreal hellscape, an incredibly funny romp – or, if your referee-mojo is up to the task, you could use this in its best way: As both.

The following, while containing mostly discussion of mechanics, does contain SPOILERS for some of the weird stuff to be found. If you plan to partake in this as a player, please stop reading NOW.

… .. .

All right, only referees around?

All right, but the book does have more to offer than being an adventure-locale, so let’s take a look at that stuff first! So, this pdf does include a new class, the psychonaut, which is a take on a quick and easy to use psionics system and class that can easily coexist with e.g. P/X: Basic Psionics Handbook (review forthcoming): The psychonaut gets d6 HD, must have Int 11 and Wisdom 14, and uses the magic-user’s XP-progression, though level 8, the final level of the class takes 10 K XP more than the magis-user’s, requiring 160,000 XP to attain. At 3rd level and every odd level thereafter, the class gets a defective mutation, which means you roll a d6: On a 1-4, you roll a d20 on the physical deformation table (which may net you a withered arm, a rotted nose, a third nipple, etc. – these can be purely cosmetic, or have rules-relevant repercussions, though they are never pure drawbacks, always also featuring benefits. On a 5-6 on the initial d6 roll, you get a mental deformation. These may, for example, include Psychobabble. To quote the book: “There is a 25% chance that this character will begin shouting in a manic, incoherent manner each time she opens her mouth to speak (much as though she was speaking in tongues). This condition will persist for 1d6 turns. Strangely, religious zealots and oral health specialists will understand the character just fine.” That made me laugh.

The psychonaut starts with a 1st level power, powers are organized in 4 levels, and the class gets up to 4 1st level powers, 3 2nd and 3rd level powers, and 2 4th level powers. The powers note how often per day they can be used, and 6 1st level powers, 7 2nd level powers, 6 3rd level powers and 6 4th level powers are provided; some of these duplicate spells and note how often they can be used, which provides enough guidance to craft your own powers yourself. Powers include the mighty mook-sweeping brainsploder, quips so biting they may see you rocking for days on end, and e.g. the antiorgasm. You see, eld are colossal pricks. They have antiorgone weaponry that will wreck your sex-life, and this ability is one of the debuffs that taps into this concept.

This can also be seen among the eld artifacts – you see, the eld hail from the Cold Hell, and are basically Lawful Evil, decadent elves with elongated heads, a flair for industrial art deco, and a penchant for biomancy and super-science. They also ooze David Bowie. As such, eld artifacts are plentiful and include e.g. antiorgone grenades, mighty blastotubes guns that fire razor discs that may decapitate you on a crit, self-cranking crossbows, items that can generate ice, plasma welders…and there is the intelligent and mighty mustache of grappling. Yes, you can move on it. Dr McNinja would be proud. And I have but touched the surface here – from hoverchairs to their bubblecars, the strange tech the eld employ very much defines them as antagonists, and a random tables to determine shapes and functions can allow you to further improvise more artifacts. And yes, it is very much intended that PCs experiment with this: The artifacts are grouped in 4 classes, which require an increasing amount of d6s to be rolled under Intelligence, and if you succeed, the less complex ones can be taught to others, provided they’re smart enough. Some artifacts also require a combined high Int and Wis and psionic abilities. This easy to use engine is elegant and makes interacting with NPCs desirable and provides an interesting leverage versus murder-hoboing PCs: “You know, I can teach you to use these could flying bubblecars and their fireball-burst weaponry…”

The bestiary section also mirrors the focus on the eld – there is a massive, bloated face with tine baby arms and bone ridges that terminate in gatling gun-like born shards. There are the purple-boned intelligent servitor ghuls with their translucent skin and strangely inborn belief in a religion of liberating flesh; there are the vatborn creatures of the eld, symbiotic mental worms, flesh blobs and energy things created by eld artifacts. Masokocka, the meatkitty, is the cloven-hoofed hunting animal of the eld, and even their weirdo domestic animals are odd. The eld are wicked – they have created a whole race as a practical joke, the stygian hound: A dog that’s perpetually (and painfully!) on fire. See how this could be utterly tragic and horrible, or kinda funny, depending on how you play it? That’s the strength here, the impossible tightrope act that the author constantly performs with panache aplomb. For every horrific deed, there’s a line like the acknowledgement that the eld have decided not to defecate, because it’s undignified. (Plus, obvious, a leader who has a golden-plated, decadent toilet in a secret room as a secret vice…) And yes, this may sound puerile. Rest assured, it is not. One final note on the creatures – they are good, but not all are as interesting as some of the best ones out there; they do their job at depicting the unique ecology of the eld, though, and this is only worth mentioning in contrast to the excellence of the remainder of the book.

All right, this is as far as I’ll be going into the mechanical components of the book, so let’s talk about the proper adventure-sections, shall we? This means that the following contains SERIOUS SPOILERS. Potential players should definitely jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only referees around? Great! So, beyond the hooks (which do tie in with the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Hill Canton Lore), the isles take an interesting twist: Being particularly lawful, the isles of the eld are only within the world, courtesy due to the energies coursing through them, which are measured by the anti-chaos index. The PCs destabilizing their operations actually will shift the realities of the isle. The isle itself…is easily one of the most unique and astonishing locales I have seen in my entire reviewer’s career. Not hyperbole.

Picture a mist-shrouded isle of black sands, where ginormous ridges of stone allow for pointcrawling between their majestic elevations (for an explanation of pointcrawling: Basically picture overland adventuring from keyed locale to keyed locale; a more detailed explanation can be found in my Slumbering Ursine Dunes-review); a heavy charcoal-cloud laden sky looms over all, and personally, I’d like to imagine all tinted in a greenish tint in an eternal predawn twilight. No winds howl between the ridges – who btw. are gigantic grubs that may well pupate into quarter-mile moths on gossamer wings in a tantalizing, local apocalypse for the eld.

Speaking of whom: The artworks provided for eld, structures and servitor creatures (like vatmen – clad in black vinyl-like material, with pallid human faces and a horn that extends from their forehead, expressing their emotional state in a kind of…phallic protrusion) are lavishly illustrated by Luka Rejec, whose blend of art déco, eastern quasi-Japanese aesthetics, 70s heavy metal psychedelica and Bowie-esque strangeness generate an astounding visual identity for the eld. One that is deliberate in the best of ways, with non-eld characters, like a mute and friendly albino minotaur paladin that the PCs can ally with, deliberately being drawn in another style. Same goes for the vistas of the locations, who tend to be more realistic, using a strange blend of the industrial, pseudo-Eastern, and the monolithic structures one would associate with games like Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, etc.

Art and text provide a surprisingly holistic totality here, and we do get artworks for key eld leaders, and we do get the command structure explained – and different alarm levels as well as the edlish defense plan. Eld patrol random encounters come with detailed strategies and write-ups, and reinforcements sent by the mighty overmind of the race allow the referee to amp up the danger significantly, when e.g. Über-Lieutnant Mozz is concerned. I also got a chuckle out of an Eminem-reference of all things in the descriptive text of Mid-Altern Virmuun – certainly did not expect to see that here. These leaders btw. also come with a bit of sample quotes.

Beyond the massive point-crawl over the isle, we have 4 different mini-dungeons/adventure locales. Now, in the previous Hill Canton books, these did tend to be somewhat weaker than the rest of the book. This is NOT the case here: We have a monument that chains the 5th god of Marlinko; a delightfully strange eld plantation; a pretentious city of majestic pagodas that actually are home of the local leader, but also pretty much an empty shell, akin to a Hollywood scenery, and there would be the nightmarish industrial vat complex, which has been taken over (at least half of it!) by a demon from the Hot Hells, who was freed when a possessed kid was fed to the flesh vat tubes. This is the darkest complex, and definitely the one that will make the PCs want to exterminate the eld, if the rest hasn’t aready done the trick. All of these locations come with b/w-maps that are really cool, but lack a player-friendly, unlabeled version for VTT-use or guys like yours truly that like to cut up maps and hand them to players as they explore. Said demon, btw.? Morbidly obese and acne-ridden. And thankfully slow, so “kiting” is actually kind of encouraged here. Did I mention that the PCs can save Samuel Taylor Coleridge from a grisly fate, who is convinced he is trapped in a particularly nasty opium-dream? Did I mention the deformed outcast psychonaut eld with the multiple-personality disorder that developed due to having two brains? Or the eld caught in amber-like resin, forever staring at cascading waves in a bathtub? The secretariat, where tiny, purple-furred, 4-eyed pseudo-monkeys madly punch at typewriters, keeping eld bureaucracy running, while vat-born giants lumber 3/4th of the reports in an incinerator, the rest to the overmind?

Where in previous Hill Cantons books, the respective dungeons never managed to capture the weirdness and unique tone of the upper world, this book seamlessly combines them in a unified aesthetic and level of quality.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard with a ton of great original artworks that have a truly distinct style. Cartography is b/w and well done, but the lack of player-friendly, unlabeled maps is a bummer and the one downside of this book. The pdf, as noted, has no bookmarks, which is a huge detriment – I strongly suggest getting the print version. For the pdf-version, you should detract a star from the final rating.

Chris Kutalik, with additional design by Robert Parker, has surpassed the first two Hill Canton books, which already were excellent offerings. The Misty Isles of the Eld, though? They are masterclass level of design and writing. This book has more jamais-vu coolness inside than most whole product-lines; the unified aesthetics of the eld, their tools and all – it comes together neat, seamlessly and all is subservient to the requirements of the referee: Counter strategies, cool NPC-dynamics, flavorful tidbits…you won’t read a single page in this book that does not have some sort of brilliant idea, funny component or downright creative and outré component. Sure, we have seen bubble cars before – but not like this. We have seen evil elves before – but the eld have NOTHING in common with drow and are totally and utterly distinct.

The blackened shores of this isle have actually invaded my dreams, managing what precious few books achieve. I have had this book for more than a year as per the writing of this review, and rereading it, going through it with a fine-toothed comb, it has lost nothing of its impact, its splendor. I’d go so far and claim that this book is worth buying, even if you don’t play OSR-games. The ideas herein are so cool, so dense in how much awesome stuff is within these pages, that it’s worth its price even when divorced of its rules. This is easily one of my all-time favorite OSR-books out there, and, in spite of the lack of unlabeled maps, it is most assuredly worth 5 stars + seal of approval, and gets my best-of tag to boot. If you are even remotely interested in a book that dares to be different and brilliant, in something novel, then get this ASAP. One final suggestion: If you want to increase the eld’s biomancy-angle, adding Gavin Norman’s “The Complete Vivimancer” to the fray can add yet another facet to an already radiant gem of a book.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Misty Isles of the Eld
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Operation Unfathomable
by Grahame H. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 11/29/2018 00:01:49

A fantastic, weird gonzo exploration into the deeps. This module is an imaginative romp through a mysterious and evocative underworld setting filled with giant chaos godlings and remnants of advanced beetle civilizations. This module will tick all the right boxes for those who love a humurous gonzo themed adventure, but may not appeal so much to those who prefer a grittier, more 'serious' style of play. The only issues with this module are the layout and presentation of information which at times is not logical or helpful for the GM when running at the table. Information should be provided in a logical manner that assists with quick scanning during play, this module at times fails on this point. Other than this, this is a solid module and should not be missed by any lover of OSR systems. 4 out of 5.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Operation Unfathomable
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Operation Unfathomable
by Carter R. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 11/16/2018 17:20:33

This is a great dungeon crawl into the depths. It has the weird sci-fantasy gonzoness that hits just the right spot. Info is given on the factions players will encounter. The monsters are great, as is a lot of the artwork.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
What Ho, Frog Demons
by Christian H. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 11/03/2018 03:41:56

The adventures and setting elements presented in What Ho, Frog Demons (WHFD) are fun and intereting in their rarely seen comical, almost grotesque approach to adventure design. The adventures themselves are well structured. NPCs, locations and plots are presented individually in neat lists, easy to cross-reference to create an adventure that works at the table.

The content itself is very weird and wild, with inspiration form tons of different sources mixing into a decidedely surreal whole. This is a great part of the charm of the Hill Cantons setting. Still, other books in the series (Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever Dreaming Marlinko, Misty Isles of the Eld) are more unified in a particular theme, where WHFD comes across as more eclectic. This might be a function of the scope - WHFD describes a larger area, with a more diverse range of possible adventures. The result is the tone of WHFD ends up being harder to pin-point.

If you are in for a wild ride and do not mind a few bumps on the road, WHFD does provide a large and interesting world to explore. There is much to use out of box, take inspiration from or simply salvage into whatever shape you want to use. I might perosanlly tone some of the deliberately silly elements down in some places, while cutting out some of the more gory elements to find a middle way that suits my group's style of play. Thankfully, the module makes this easy by presenting everything in a format that allows for maximum mixing and matching.

The art is also excellent, reminding me of old black and white pages from old issues of Heavy Metal magazine. I am eagerly waiting for a print version of the book for easier use at the table.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
What Ho, Frog Demons
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What Ho, Frog Demons
by Gus L. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/26/2018 22:36:47

Another journey into the perverse humor and manifest strangeness of the Hill Cantons. While it contains two excellent adventures - the demonic beet plague slowly turning a bucolic village into a porcine and tuber nightmare is especially fun looking - What Ho may serve best as the glue that holds the other three publish Hill Canton's adventures (Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever Dreaming Marilinko & Misty Isles of the Eld) together with its regional hex crawl.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Witchburner: Burner Edition
by Luke M. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/26/2018 09:54:18

The in-depth descriptions of the people in the town are not only well-done, but also seem easy to work with at the table. Ditto the day-by-day description of events in the town. The use of watches and alcohol makes it all work more smoothly than what I would have run by my own devices.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Witchburner: Burner Edition
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Witchburner: Burner Edition
by Sigve S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/26/2018 04:33:25

Luka Rejec's Witchburner is a joy to just flip through, with several beautiful ink-style illustrations to feast your eyes on. The content itself is very usable and helps the GM set the scene for a village that is about to undergo a lot of trouble, some involving witches. It holds an extensive list of personas from the village, as well as an oversightful list of events that carry on from day one. It is written in a style that enables you to use the content in most OSR games, ranging from Lamentations of the Flame Princess to Knave, which again makes it broadly suitable for many game groups. If you like what you see in the Burner Edition, I strongly recommend going for the paid version, which holds even more content!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Witchburner: Burner Edition
by Matthew B. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/26/2018 00:43:49

Nothing in this neat little module is anything short of excellent, however, the things that stand out for me with Witchburner are the scenario and the town. The scenario is a definite twist on gaming conventions. It is a great example of putting players in a painful moral quandary without railroading them in the slightest. As for the town, it is clear that Luka has a very deep dual understanding of people and tragedy; how they can be petty and painful and noble and fearful all at the same time. Witchburner takes all these facets of humanity and crams them together into a little town until they become a powder keg... and then the players arrive, carrying a lit match.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Witchburner
by Zedeck S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/25/2018 22:41:27

Been following the development of this since Luka started posting about it, on his Patreon / Google Plus. The art is bomb (as is usual for Luka), and it's got neat ideas (I love the way the town mob is handled). But the standout in Witchburner for me is the writing. Each of the town's 30 NPCs comes with a short piece of prose, as an introduction. Players won't really get to see these anecdotes in play, I don't think -- but they are great as mood- and character-setting for GMs. And they are legit great pieces of prose writing, generally. (My favourite, so far: the butcher, who gives her young daughter a pet piglet, remembering how her mother gave her a piglet too -- then forced her to slaughter it for festival pies.)



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Witchburner
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Witchburner: Burner Edition
by pat e. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/25/2018 21:15:39

I grabbed this to read. I knew it would be too dark from my regular gaming group, but I wanted to see a good Halloween adventure. Witchburner didn't disappoint. The setting is loaded with detail to enhance the mood, and the ethical quandary at the heart of the adventure is going to be something for adventuring groups to grapple with. I enjoyed the PCs and the 'day at a time' developments in the adventure. Given the right group, I think this would be a blast to run or play. The writer was also careful to give enough detail, while staying away from hard and fast mechanics, that this can be dropped into most FRPG game systems very easily.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Witchburner: Burner Edition
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Fever-Dreaming Marlinko
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 10/01/2018 04:58:24

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The second big Hill Cantons-book clocks in at 72 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 66 pages of content, laid out in the classic digest (A5-ish) standard, so let’s take a look!

This review was requested by my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience. I do own the print version of this booklet and my review is primarily based on the print version. I did also consult the pdf.

Content-wise, I probably should state that if you’re a super-devout Christian, one particular aspect of the supplement may potentially offend you; it also contains profanity. I found it hilarious, but yeah. Warning disclaimer and such.

Now, I assume familiarity with the concepts of the Hill Cantons in this review, so please bear that in mind. I have reviewed the Cosmology pdf and the second compendium of rules-material – this is relevant, since the Mountebank and the Robo-dwarf race class have been presented in the second compendium. The pdf does contain 30 female and 31 male names, a brief page on nicknames and a short pronunciation guide for the Slavic nomenclature employed in Marlinko. Note that I am no specialist in Slavic languages and have a hard time determining authenticity here, with Czech being the only Slavic language I am rudimentarily familiar with – though my proficiency, so far, is unfortunately atrocious, which is a pity, considering how much I loved Ajvaz’s and Topol’s writing – I need to read them in the original one day. But I digress.

The pdf does include 3 monsters, with robo-dwarves being one; the second is a wobbly giant, and we get a vampire variant. A tiger wrestling mini-game is also includes in the deal – it’s fun, rules-lite and a nice diversion. Speaking of rules: As before, labyrinth Lord is the default rules-system assumed here, though conversion to other OSR-games, as always, is dead simple.

Now, this city is in pretty close proximity to the Weird, and as such takes on the cast that the “fever-dreaming” indeed so successfully implies: This city could make for a great place to splice e.g. Narcosa-content into the game, and it is weird. And gonzo. And genuinely funny.

You see, this supplement/book focuses on making a super-gameable city: Not one that drowns in details, but neither one that just remains a sketch. The city section as such straddles that ephemeral line between the two extremes with panache aplomb, and is utterly HILARIOUS while doing so. This is one of the very few honestly FUNNY gaming books that actually manages to blend humor with excitement. There are few gaming books that made me laugh out loud. This has succeeded doing just that. The city supplement component does present a lot of things to generate and to work with – if you do want a go-play city, then this will not provide what you’re looking for: This is a place to work with, a hazy inspiration that comes together by the hand of the GM taking the ideas presented and developing them.

Now, beyond the city supplement aspects, this also has two fully-detailed adventure-sites. Both are super-challenging for the level-range suggested (levels 2 – 6; total party levels 12 – 18); if you’re looking to actually kill the opposition/murder hobo through these sites, you’ll die horribly. These adventure-sites, as well as the city itself, are provided in gorgeous isometric versions provided by the talented Luka Rejec. They also are available as their own free map-pack – a direct link is at the bottom of the review on my homepage. Now, unfortunately, neither map-pack nor the book provide redacted player-friendly versions of these maps, which is a bit of a bummer here.

As mentioned before, I do own the PoD softcover – it’s a nice little book with interior b/w-art, and the city map is on the back cover in the PoD-version. If you do get this, get print.

The pdf has no bookmarks.

Yep, you heard right. I actually delayed my review for months, hoping that they’d be added, but so far, no dice. The pdf thus is a huge pain to navigate.

Not cool. Get print.

Now, it is in the nature of this supplement that the ideas and notes presented in the setting supplement sections will gel together with campaigns and the adventure-locations; as such, this constitutes my big SPOILER-WARNING. I will talk in detail about quite a few of these aspects. Potential players of this one should jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

All right, only GMs around? Seriously, players – jump ahead! Okay, final question: Truly only GMs around? Great!

So, the book begins with a brief in-character vignettes that PERFECTLY encapsulates the themes and tone of the city. The scene depicts a trip to the Serene Guild of Seers, just to provide context:

From the darkness above, a booming, hollow voice demands, “WHAT DO YOU SEEEEEK?”

Ba Chim replies: “Where is the tip of the sword Fauxbringer located, and what must be done

to restore the sword to its full powers?”

The oracle begins to sway side to side melodramatically, shouting: “VIAKHANA Xitchol!

Serpadon! Cuccagna! NATAS!” and then breaks in with a monotone, “What is a stick that is

not a stick? When is a rock not...”

The attendant hurriedly interrupts her. Ba Chim can make out over the attendant’s stage

whisper that he is urgently saying “full rate.” The oracle abruptly stops and says in a perfectly

clear, normal-toned voice: “Oh, well, you can find the sword in the underground level under

the Tower of the Master in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. Cirl the Petulant left it sitting on a

worktable right next to the magical forge that can repair it. Cirl was slain for reneging on a

gambling debt by a blue-skinned giant apparently before he could complete his task.”

“Next!”

If you’re like me, then that made you at least smile. The humor is truly amazing and suffuses the whole book in an unobtrusive and fun way.

So yeah, that is the type of humor you can find within; but there is more. So much more. Marlinko, as a city, is divided into 4 contradas, with central roads separating these quarters; all but one of these central thoroughfares lead to a gate. As the map notes “Lacking Gate of Cracked Skulls” – things are weird here, after all! In the center of the city, at the nexus, there is a black square block, the tomb of the city gods, with 4 of the 5 gods each associated their own contrada. These include a literally razor-tongued town god rumored to be an idiot and a vaguely bee-shaped bringer of both affluence and anxiety. Think about the latter for a second – beyond the outré nature of the concept, it is actually CLEVER.

Now, the contradas each get their own, small section: These sections provide an overview, a couple of sights to see around the contrada, as well as a selection of random encounters, with stats provided. These include e.g. Borko, Collector of Pollen (to be found in the richest Contrada, the one devoted to the bee god-thing…), asking for a “voluntary donation”…or Maus. (German for “mouse.”) That guy is convinced that the secret postal and matchmaking service “Axis of Tindrthurn” has it in for him….he’s obviously paranoid and delusional. Well, kinda. You see, he may be right.

What does that mean? Well, the amazing Chaos Index to simulate fluctuations of weirdness and magic from Slumbering Ursine Dunes? It makes a return here. And at a sufficiently high level, he is actually right! I still absolutely adore the Chaos Index and its implementation here is inspired – the write-up does mention a couple REALLY weird happenstances and customs taking place in the city of the weird’s rising. I actually found myself wishing we’d get more. This also btw. interacts with the brief news of the day generator, which basically doubles as 20 adventure hooks.

But let’s return to the contradas: Each of them also sports a brief table of sample buildings, though one is mislabeled as “random encounters.” It should also be noted that the pdf includes a few choice sample sentences from the mouths of the illustrious NPCs found within the city, to give you a feeling for how to portray them. Speaking of the NPCs – in a city, where cons are pretty much a way of life (the book even explains popular cons, both long and short!), the freakishly honest Fraža makes for a great sample NPC: This guy is a fair curio dealer, but due to a curse, he has no filter whatsoever regarding his thoughts, explaining to non-humans in detail why he secretly hates and fears them. There is a former anti-cleric of the Anti-World-Turtle. And don’t cross the suave and immaculately-dressed František, the checkered mage and basically what constitutes the city’s foremost magic-user. Speaking of which: The book does come with a MASSIVE marketplace section, noting spells for sale by aforementioned mage, hirelings, mundane items, the prices demanded by the seer’s guild…and the cost of killing people.

You see, Marlinko is chaotic and weird, as such, there is sanctioned and unsanctioned crime, and yes, there is an official guild that nominally requires a proof of wronging and operates only for citizens…but unsurprisingly, that is no hard guideline whatsoever…Now, one of my favorite concepts presented by Jeff Rients would obviously be the carousing rules, and I’m certainly not the only one. In a city as weird and in flux as Marlinko, I very much welcomed the inclusion of a dedicated carousing section, with different sections for the contradas and adventuring potential galore. So yes, the whole city section is pretty much amazing.

Now, as mentioned before, the book also presents two brief adventure locales/mini-dungeons if you will. Together, these, including their maps, take up slightly more than 10 pages of the supplement. The first would be the abode of a strigoi, who is also a major mover and shaker in the city. While zombie maids and a Mr. Mxyzptlk-reference made me smile, the location simply doesn’t have the room to live up to its potential. This is further exacerbated in the second adventure locale, which depicts the Catacombs of the Blood Jesus. The latter made me really sad, for the premise is amazing: Picture a drunkard priest from our world stranding in Marlinko, proselytizing and unwittingly getting a cult going, one that emphasis divine cannibalism and blood-drinking. Do nun-maenads sound cool? Yeah, they are. However, much like the first locale, the dungeon, while interesting and neat, doesn’t really live up to the amazing and bonkers potential its premise deserves. There is so much weirdness you could get going here…

Don’t get me wrong, these two locations aren’t bad per se; but they simply don’t live up to how great the actual city supplement section is. Even after all of the things I mentioned, I have only given you a taste of the creativity within this book.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are good; I noticed a few minor hiccups in both formal and rules-language criteria. Layout adheres to a no-frills 1-column b/w-standard, and the supplement sports a couple of really nice original b/w-artworks by Jeremy Duncan and Jason Sholtis. The isometric b/w-cartography for the locales and color for the city by Luka Rejec is fantastic, but the lack of player-friendly versions is a strike against them. Similarly, the dungeon-maps lack a scale, which makes judging distance problematic. They are thus beautiful, but not particularly useful. The print version has a white spine without its name on it. More annoyingly, the pdf version, as mentioned, has no bookmarks, which, particularly for a book like this that requires page-flipping and quick navigation, a huge no-go. Detract a whole star from my final verdict for the pdf version.

Chris Kutalik’s Marlinko is indeed a fever-dream, and an amazing one; I’ve had enough of them as a child to recognize the aesthetic and tone, and it is BRILLIANT. The city section, the contradas, the NPCs – everything is quirky, and the hilarious and audacious blend with the odd and horrific in a most inspiring of ways. Marlinko is a city like no other and manages to evoke a surprising sense of consistency. I really wished this supplement had been longer and it left me wanting more! The writing, in short, is excellent. However, the rules-relevant components are less impressive when e.g. compared to what Necrotic Gnome Productions brings to the table for Labyrinth Lord. The adventure locations, while both nice, fell flat in direct comparison, at least for me. Both have promising concepts and notions, but both, perhaps due to a lack of space, can’t properly develop their cool concepts. They would have been better served as stand-alone modules. Particularly since Marlinko could have very much used the space they take up to elaborate further on the intoxicating and captivating atmosphere of weirdness it evokes.

How to rate this, then? Well, the city supplement sections as such deserve 5 stars + seal of approval; the adventure locales come in at a 4 stars; and then there would be the bookmarks/maps/etc. issues I mentioned. As a person, I love Marlinko. I really do. For me, this is a 5 star + seal of approval settlement; however, as a reviewer, I have to take the shortcomings this does have into account – and as such, I can’t go higher than 4 stars for it. However, since I really enjoyed the city as such, this does receive my seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko
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