Red and Pleasant Land (2014)
Zak S. (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Hello children and welcome to another exciting installment of PrinceofNothingReviews. Today your Prince will be taking a detour from his habitual setting posting and focus on reviewing a product that stirred up the hen’s nest in rpgland, or at the very least a cluster of atoms of the hen’s nest, like maybe enough for one hen cell.
I speak of none other then the critically acclaimed Red and Pleasant Land campaign setting by vaguely known game designer/artist Zak S for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, an old school game more or less based on Basic DnD. This particular ruffling of feather-atoms and clucking of hen-bosons was caused by its unexpected and some might charitably say landslide victory in the Ennies, an award given to rpgs for being good by a group of people that give awards to rpgs for being good based on a popular vote.
With ridiculous self-congratulatory jeering on one side and the bitter wailing and the gnashing of teeth on the other (I have left out the rest of the universe for dramatic effect), I am left with no alternative but to wade ankle-deep into the festering mires of OSR-land and attempt to glean from all this ruckus a sort of conclusion on the merits of the nominated work.
Your Prince and Wisest of all RPGreviewers must profess his ignorance in matters of Zak S’s earlier works, the much lauded and praised Vornheim, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. Surely RaPL is a greater work. They don’t just give Emmies out you know (pointed glancing at 4e).
I shall be doing this in parts, because RaPl is large.
We are off to an enticing start. The cover image of the PDF I have been loaned by a close and personal friend has a nice, pleasant, red colour, golden lettering, a stylistic border & title and an image of a nice if somewhat dingy Alice in wonderland sitting on a bunch of cubes, with a castle prominently featured in the background. The art is distinctive and catching tot the eye and I sort of hate it but I am no art critic so let us move on.
Oh RAPL. What wonderful secrets do you and dingy Alice hide ‘twixt your Red and Pleasant covers? The first answer is an ugly map. Eeeeeugh! I contort my face in outraged dismay. I get that they were going for the artsy vibe and I applaud the commitment to artistic vision but this map is hideous. 1 out of 10. Review over.
…Well it isn’t too bad. The cubist nightmare of a map (probably appropriate to the setting[edit:extremely appropriate!]) is obviously handdrawn but very clear and though I fail to see the need for drawing say, the mountains as giant letters spelling out the names of the mountains I will ascribe this to contributing an overall aesthetic meant to enrich the wonderful secrets hidden beneath dingy Alice’s covers. The map also had room left so Zak included a random encounter table for different regions that makes very effective use of otherwise empty map space.
176 pages to go, I am doing great. Acknowledgements, index [not hyperlinked :(], escheresque geometrical opening art piece and…introduction!
Some women, some men and most children know that dreams leak. A lifetime
of thinking it that way in your sleep can make a drawer on a drafting table three
or four inches wider on a side.
But there are longer lives than ours. And longer dreams.
There is a Red King, and he is terrible and he is tall. He wears a red crown. The long red years
have made him strange and he hides from the sun, sleeping, his strange dreams making unseen
days stranger. Sleeping, he dreams of ruin and of distortion— of an Antiland, reversed and red.
When he opens his red eyes in the red night there is his red land: it is inverted, rigid, and wrong.
There is a cruel Heart Queen: she is in a different castle and she is on a different mountain
and she sleeps in a different wooden box but she is also hiding and dreaming. She dreams into
being a world unending, unbeginning, with wonder and murder, disruption and unreason.
And melancholy green gardens. And it is there now. And hers.
Their home is called Voivodja but it has other names now: The Land the Gods Refuse To See.
Zeu Orb. Orb Dumnezeu. Isten Vak.
The Place of Unreason.
As far as introductions go, this is adequate. It sets the mood, introduces the concept, it is less then a page long (I am looking at you White Wolf) and it mentions some of the concepts so we get tintilated or somewhat curious. I don’t know if I could write a better introduction myself, you are free to compare my loggorheaic An Age of Dusk with this relatively restrained introduction and draw your conclusion as to the value of my assesment.
This is followed up by a page on how to use the book, where Zak mentions he doesn’t know your style so he doesn’t know which way will work best for you but then gives 4 suggestions anyway; 1) use it as a campaign, 2) use parts of it independently, 3) Not use it [with an admonition that you could still use parts of it] 4) choke small animals with it (I suspect this suggestion may be in jest). It also mentions effort has been made to make it compatible with both old and newer versions of the worlds most popular roleplaying game(that is kind of cool), it will work as well for old as for new games(I doubt this), and its for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. A useless page but that’s okay.
Ah, but now we get to the meat of RapLand. A Guide to Voivodja. Voivodja is essentially a giant country-spanning spatio/temporally-fucked up ruined palace/mega-dungeon, possession of which is contested by two powerful vampires (the Heart Queen and the Red King) and their weirdo-armies and no one knows how long it has been going on. Two interlopers, cousins of the aforementioned vampiric monarchs, have also arrived on the scene, the Pale King(who comes bearing gifts of pudding and sausage) and the Colourless queen (whose motivations are unknown), whose servants can cross running water which might give one side a decisive advantage in the Slow War. Suggestions follow on how to place/reach Red and Pleasant Land in your campaign (mirrors, dungeons, districts, a curse etc. etc.). What few human inhabitants remain in Voivodja huddle in overgrown gardens behind enchantments or in wells (I shit you not).
It also adds the concept of the Quiet Side, a parallel dimension almost identical to our own that can be reached through mirrors, where the vampires don’t live (no reflection therefore they don’t exist there), cleric spells dont work (the gods dont see it) and it is so quiet that a player can only remain there for a number of seconds equal to their wisdomx10 or go insane from the quiet (but you can make wisdom checks to fall asleep so your comrades can possibly rescue you). Curiously enough, the people on the Quiet side are one of the few sources of blood for all the vampires, since most of the population on the War Side has been hunted to extinction, thus mirrors everywhere so as to better entice the people of the Quiet side to come through the mirror and become part of a gruesome banquet. This is pretty cool but it never really sees use throughout the product (with the exception of the Red King’s castle, and even there only sparingly).
Descriptions of the bizarre, bloody and illogical customs of Voivodja follow, covering such varied subjects as cricket, duelling, eating, battles, general customs (everyone is weird, irrational and needlessly obstructive), marriage, law (the law section is entirely farcical, which should make for one good session of gaming at least), commerce and so. It may be likened to Alice in Wonderland albeit with more cannibalism and ritual murder. GMs are encouraged to make interacting with Npcs (and they note that no one is unalterably hostile) frustrating or at least as long as they possibly can. Er…okay, I can see that working in an adventure but in a protracted campaign that is going to get grating (which may be the point).
Our little guide to Voivodja ends with a guide to running campaigns in Voivodja, ranging from conventions of coin, overland travel, what to actually fucking do in Voivodja, a small appendix N with books and movies (Alice in Wonderland and Dracula the movie naturally featured, and the author recommends buying the Alice and its sequel in illustrated format because everyone should), and advice on how to evoke the creepiness rather then the silliness of the setting.
I have some overall thoughts but I will reserve them for the end of my review. So far the author presents an unusual setting, replete with possibilities for tempro-spatial shenanigans, we shall see if he can make true on that promise in the rest of the book.