An Endzeitgeist.com review
This adventure-toolkit clocks in at 114 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page back cover, 3 pages of editorial/front matter, 1 page ToC, leaving us with 108 pages, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’/A5, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by my patreon supporters. My review is based on the pdf, the LotFP-released softcover, and also the version included in the limited edition Zzarchov’s Adventure Omnibus Vol.2. For the purpose of this review, only the softcover and the pdf are taken into account for the verdict, though, as the omnibus cannot currently be purchased by the public.
Okay, so what is this? Remember those Ravenloft adventures where you’d use cards to randomize key aspects of the adventure? Yeah? Well, now picture that the randomized nature was amped up to not 11, but 12, and beyond. Scenic Dunnsmouth is intended for a well-rounded party of adventurers levels 2-5, but it is not a classic adventure. Instead, this is an incredibly potent randomized “assemble-it-yourself” toolkit. The replay value is VAST, and the depth of the content provided is also impressive. It should be noted, though, that this toolkit is not one you quickly assemble. While the creation-process is pretty quick, the intricate combinations and variables do mean that you should take some time, though you won’t need more than for most module-preparations. With one exception: I hope you like drawing maps. None are included. I hate that.
Theme-wise, the toolkit is firmly entrenched in the dark fantasy/horror genre, so if you’re easily offended and want your fantasy fluffy and clean, steer clear of this. This is grimy, gritty, and contains taboo subjects. At least to my German sensibilities, it is never gratuitous, though: This is frightening and mature without devolving into a grimy schlock-fest. Dunnsmouth is, as implied by the name, cursory related to the Innsmouth theme popularized by Lovecraft, but only in the theme of a remote and xenophobic community; there are thankfully no Deep ones or other tired mythos critters in this book. Dunnsmouth is supposed to be an isolated, perpetually mist-shrouded community, and the most likely adventure hook provided would be that of the tax collectors, which did make me smile.
So, how does the generator work? You need a deck of playing cards, a d4, 10 d6s, a d8 and two differently colored d12s. Then you take a sheet of paper and roll all dice on the sheet, taking note where they fall; the d4 denotes the location of an important artifact, and its value denotes the infection level; each d6 is a home in Dunnsmouth. If the value of the d6 is equal to or less than the infection level, then the home is infected. For each home, you also draw a playing card, and each playing card corresponds to a specific inhabitant of Dunnsmouth. The suits of the cards are aligned with one of the 4 “great” families of Dunnsmouth.
The value of the respective d6 also determines certain properties of the inhabitant. The d8 is the local church, and its value determines the state of mind of the priest, and if the d8 is less than infection level (only if it’s less!), the priest is infected.
The two d12s are special: On a 1-6, they are another home; on a 7+, they are a special location; each of the two dice has different special locations. The die that lands farthest from the d4 is the home of Uncle Ivanovik (more on that later), with the die result denoting the fellow’s level. The total tally of dice is used for determining treasure. 1 inch is considered to be 10 minutes of travelling by foot, 2 minutes by boat. The “step-by-step building Dunnsmouth”-explanation is provided twice; once at the start of the pdf, and once in the back, where the generation process is illustrated with various diagrams. 9 pages are devoted to the step-by-step sample process in this appendix. The toolkit also includes a handy quick reference appendix of 3 pages of statblocks; 3 sample spells properly balanced within the frame of the rules-set (which is LotFP, i.e., Lamentations of the Flame Princess – no surprise there) and 6 magic items are included, not including the aforementioned artifact. This back of the book matter also provides some sample suggestions to clarify beforehand: One of the great families is partially defined by an ancient shame, and two sample ideas are presented. Both are interesting.
While we’re on the playing card angle: It is HILARIOUS to me that particularly kooky characters and somewhat intrusive NPCs are assigned to the cards you were supposed to take out of the deck. So yes, if you left the jokers inside, the poker rules card or an advertisement card…you actually have an associated NPC for those as well. There are a ton of b/w/red-artworks for the inhabitants of Dunnsmouth: Jez Gordon uses an interesting combination of b/w-art and red shaders that gleam almost in a metallic manner in the softcover for a rather neat aesthetic identity, and the sheer amount of mugshots included (alongside other artworks) is neat to see and helps establish the theme. Usually, each set of inhabitants, say, the 4 of clubs, gets their own page that lists the card, the NPC/home description and the mugshot-artworks for (almost all) inhabitants, with presentation switching to a one-column standard, making organization pretty easy on the referee. The downside of this is that there is quite a bit of blank space on most pages; the majority of NPC-write-ups come with approximately half a page of blank space.
It should also be noted that each NPC clarifies what’s different when they are infected, and in a pleasant surprise, I often found the non-infected write-up sections more interesting than the infected scenario; the depth and potential interconnectedness is VAST. I created a whole slew of Dunnsmouths, and how differently they turned out was impressive; the sheer replay-value for the referee is GINORMOUS, and indeed, this is one of the very, very few adventures that you could run once per year with the same group and still have radically different experiences without becoming redundant. Of course, it’s very tempting to make Dunnsmouth LARGER. Frankly, one can get an incredibly deep and complex web of relationships by increasing the d6s and NPCs included, but adding in stuff you didn’t roll, even though that’s not the intention of the toolkit.
Okay, in order to discuss this in more detail, I will need to go deep into SPOILER territory. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion. Seriously. Don’t SPOIL yourself. (Even if your version of Dunnsmouth will be different from all I have made.)
Okay, only referees around? Great! So, let us talk about the 4 families and other players, shall we? The Duncasters (Heart) struck me as southern upper middle class, with impeccable joviality and friendliness, but also strong familial bonds; they are probably the closest to a traditional allied family the party may have. The Dunlops (Diamond) are moderately-wealthy, and in contrast to the Duncasters, are somewhat elitist. The Samsons (Club), allied with the Duncasters, curiously are perhaps the most unpleasant of the families – they are angry, xenophobic, inbred and consistently aggressive, and they manage to fill that role superbly and without treading into the classic Lovecraft themes. Finally, the Van Kaus (Spade) are quasi-Dutch/Germanic and have a kind of austere, almost Amish style and a hidden secret that the referee needs to specify. We have 13 cards per family, and the aforementioned 4 wildcard cards. These families are an example of fantastic writing; they feel organic, nasty, plausible and captivating; some of the best webs of NPCs I’ve read in all my years of roleplaying. I’m not doing them justice with these short breakdowns.
Beyond these NPCs, we also have e.g. Uncle Ivanovik, who delivers your crazy trapper/hermit-angle, and his lair is modular as well; there also would be Magda, an ageing Romani magic-user, who is very likely to be a solid ally for the party. (And she is, unlike most LotFP magic-users, not some ridiculous psychopath.) There also would be Father Iwanopolous, the priest…and yes, Magda and Ivanovik can theoretically be here. There are a lot of changes that might happen depending on infection level, and individual Dunnsmouth creation. The special locations that you can roll with the d12s include elven spies, an inn, a foundry, a sawmill, a fort, etc. To give you an example for the modularity: let’s say, you rolled the sawmill: There are special considerations if Aces were drawn, if Uncle Ivanovik is in the sawmill, if Magda is here…or if the original spider is here.
Original spider? Yeah, there are two sources of malign weirdness here, the first being the spider. You see, there is one type of spider whose bite charms those bitten, making them consider the spider akin to a child. And with the strong family-theme…well, you get the idea. Those thus inducted and bitten tend to have a rather good chance of producing spider-human hybrid creatures as offspring; these are not cursed, but naturally born that way…and there is a chance that, when infected parents procreate, a whole swarm of these spiders may be born. The genetic corruption of humanoids is simply a part of the lifecycle of this spider. (The power of the spider is pretty much randomized as well, just fyi) This and the NPC set-up means that the party will need to make a ton of hard decisions.
Now, while it is very likely that this spider-cult is a driving force of the hostility in Dunnsmouth, it is not guaranteed. There actually is a chance that there won’t be a cult at all, and that the original spider has already died! I love this!
The second angle of weirdness is actually a subtle cultural reference: The artifact that influences the mist-shrouded and rather nasty atmosphere of Dunnsmouth would be the Time Cube. In-game, the artifact is sufficiently alien and dangerous, volatile and odd, and manages to be that without being yet another “Lol, all die 11!!!! So grim, so mature”-bullshit. It’s high impact in a good way and may manage to pit you against Old Man Time, who may well be an allusion. Anyhow, for the purpose of this toolkit, I’m pretty sure that the author actually read the batshit-crazy Time Cube theories and used them to, at least partially, influence the subtle numerology mirrored in the spider-theme, in the corruption of family ties, and in how these insane notions affect the choice of the actual NPCs.
To give you some context: Picture one absolutely harebrained, but incredibly complex theory of everything and its random rules and dictates, and then picture using that as a structuring and incredibly subtle principle to build a dark fantasy structure atop it. From a design-perspective, this is so subtle and elegant it made me smile.
If you are not familiar with the tragic story of the crazy pseudo-Weltanschauung of Time Cubism and want to learn more about it, I recommend watching the “Down the Rabbit Hole: Time Cube” documentary on youtube.
Editing and formatting are very good on a rules-language and formal level. Layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard with red/purple-ish shades used for accentuating the artwork; as noted above, the NPC-write-ups adhere to a 1-column standard. There are a ton of artworks, primarily mugshots, included...which is actually my main point of criticism; see below. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The softcover is perfect bound and has the name on the spine (good), but it also didn’t survive the rigors of constant use too well; the glue of my copy is coming apart.
Zzarchov Kowolski’s “Scenic Dunnsmouth” is a frickin’ masterpiece of adventure design; this toolkit spits out modular and compelling swamp backwater sandboxes like nobody’s business, providing compelling adventuring time and again; it is testament to how incredibly good this is, that I consider its results to be more compelling and interesting than almost all fixed adventures with such themes. If you’re doing Innsmouth-like horror, get this, roll up a sample Dunnsmouth, and if your module isn’t better, then learn from this. The writing for all those NPCs is brilliant. The HUGE replay-value this offers is pretty much unparalleled, particularly considering how WELL this runs. And if you disregard the die-limitations in creation, you can create a super-Dunnsmouth of sheer unrivaled depth. And yes, it can be funny in the author’s darkly-hilarious way. Particularly if you don’t remove those cards that you were supposed to remove from the deck, so if humor in your dark fantasy isn’t your thing, you do retain full control over that aspect.
Now, I do consider this to be a true masterpiece, yes. But not one I love sans reservations.
Why? Well, creating Dunnsmouth is, by necessity of its modularity, a pretty involved process. That’s all fine and dandy. But for me, the process of settlement creation got much more involved, and to the point where I do not want to do this too often. You see, I suck at drawing maps. I HATE drawing maps. It takes me forever, and I derive no joy whatsoever from it. Know what’s conspicuously absent from this toolkit? MAPS.
And the thing is, each location/house/shack can have quite a few rooms/areas in theory; cellars, hatches. The map-drawing for Dunnsmouth can occupy you literally for months. Which brings me to the artwork. You know, I like artwork as much as the next fellow, particularly if it’s nice. But the art-budget for this book? In my opinion, it was wasted on a wealth of pretty but functionally nigh-useless NPC-mugshots, when getting actual maps (or modular map-components that we can assemble, like in e.g. “Do Not Let Us Die In The Dark Night Of This Cold Winter”) would have taken a huge boatload of work off the back of the referee. Considering that Dunnsmouth has paranoia and xenophobia as leitmotifs, and considering that details are the spice of an investigation, I do think that the lack of maps genuinely and truly hurts this product. I like theater of the mind playstyles as well, but here? Here so many instances basically scream for maps. This holds particularly true for the special locations, but frankly also extends to the regular homes.
In many ways, this is what derives this book of my “best of”- and “EZG Essentials”-tags, and if there ever is a revised version, I certainly hope for an inclusion of proper maps, because right now, that is what prevents me from using this again. The thought of drawing so many maps.
As it stands, this is still a truly phenomenal piece of dark fantasy/horror-writing that I consider to be a great investment even if you’re playing in a completely different system. For most referees, this will be a masterpiece, perhaps even become the annual Halloween-module. If you’re like me and loathe the map-drawing aspect of the game, then consider this a limited caveat emptor: This is still worth getting and investing the time and effort in, but you probably won’t do it more than once.
My final verdict, though, will still remain at 5 stars, because this is a masterpiece by any metric I can apply to it. Except for the lack of maps. Did I mention that the lack of maps really annoyed me? Did I mention that this should have maps? …that was actually the sole point of contention for me. I really wanted to strip this of my seal of approval because of the lack of maps…but as a reviewer, that would be a disservice to the design and narrative depth of this supplement in favor of a pet-peeve of mine. So, there you go. With gritted teeth and grumbling, this does get the seal of approval, even though, for me as a person, the lack of maps would derive it of that.
[5 of 5 Stars!]