PrinceofNothingReviews: A Red and Pleasant Land, Part V: Undo Previous Event or A Desert Called DnD

And so we arrive at the final conclusion of this grand magnus opus, previous parts of which may be viewed to the reader’s delight here, here, here, and here.

Before we go into it, i must answer a query from one of my dear readers, an upstanding fellow bearing the eloquent title of Bigby’s Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist. In a previous installment, Mr. Lubed Fist voiced the opinion that the Alice class sounds like it would be overmatched in any regular sort of dnd game. I answered that it depended on your rolls, as most of the class abilities were determined randomly, thus the user experience would be left to the vagueries of fate. Never one to shirk in the persuit of truth, happiness and elfgames, i set out on a quest to determine just what the odds of getting a shitty Alice are. If high-school grade mathematics ineptly wielded are not for your sensetive bourgeois palette, you may and should skip the following section, which i have bracketed for your comfort and sanity, and monsieur should continue on below.

[Are they gone? Ah how i despise them, petty fools. Little do they know their very lives and elfgames are but agglomerations of happenstance and normal distribution, predictable to one as well versed in the numerological arts as i am. Worry not gentle reader, soon the memetic kill-programming will take effect and the internet will belong to us and us alone.

I should point out that in an old school game, especially one of low level, this shit doesn’t matter overmuch since the difference between character classes is not so huge that clever roleplaying or the cruel whims of happenstance cannot compensate for a few measely percentile points. 5e/pathfinder is an altogether different creature however.

Okay. So every time the Alice levels up there is a 20% chance of getting better saves, which puts it at about equal footing with a specialist or Rogue in Lamentations of the Flame Princess/Old Dnd which means about +1 on all your saves every 4th level. That works fine, you could even give your Alice the ability to backstab, and its 50% chance of getting 2 new skill points puts it at half of the skillpoints a specialist is likely to have at that level(something which is mentioned in RaPl).

The Question is of course, what are the odds of us getting a Shit Alice, that is to say, an Alice with shittier skills then a specialist and no sufficiently powerful abilities to compensate(if we discount Express Exasperation, a deus ex machina esque ability that allows escape and provides a unique benefit, which we probably should not)? For the purpose of this analysis, we assume an extremely good saving throw Alice is going to be shitty nonetheless because of its lack of offensive or support capability.

Nominally the chance is 30% of gaining an interesting ability with every level up but we will do some pruning and shearing first. We will shear the chance to get +1 to finding food, while useful, is not so extravagant as to take the place of other class abilities(-1%). So too a +2 to recognise any aristocratic faction in the land(-1%), +1 to identify the properties of drugs or plants(-1%), we will not shear a +2 to lying since lying is always useful and PCs lie constantly, +1 to dealing with aristocrats(-1%), 2 new languages(-1%), we keep forgery and near perfect appraisal since they are binary powers(you get them and they work) that are on par or greather then those of specialists, and +1 to dealing with animals of ordinary kind/talking animals(-2%) [Ponyfinder not included in the analysis]. All of these powers are very interesting and can be useful for a sort of charisma-powerhouse Alice i guess(though the chances of getting a single power twice are very small), but outside and even inside of Voivodja it is your Prince’s humble estimation that they are not on par with the abilities of other, more traditional and wholesome classes, especially if you factor in d4 Hit points per level. 23% of getting something good, which can vary from very handy to monstrously useful to so situational it is impossible to determine its merit and is therefore left in(the ability to escape death once for example).

For ease i have calculated the odds of a shit Alice at levels 5, 10 and 13. Any higher stretches credibility and we would be remiss if we did not take the average level of Lamentations of the Flame Princess games into account, which, given its lethality and lack of ressurection magic, is unlikely to be much higher. So!

The base chance of getting a Shit Alice is extremely easy to calculate. We simply take the chance of a Shit Alice(an Alice that level-ups without getting COOL POWERZ) to the n-1th power where n is the Alice’s level, since an alice does not gain random abilities at level 1. So, you have (1-.23) = 77% chance of a “bad” level up(obviously not that bad, your alice will need saving throws and skill points too, but you get what i mean). You have (.77)^4 = 35% chance of a level 5 Shit Alice. At that level it shouldnt be THAT bad, and you can still make yourself useful by Expressing Exasperation to the annoyance of your GM and fellow players. The chance of a 10th level Shit Alice is only a paltry 9.5%(5.6% for 12th). You could also roll really low on hit points for other classes, so im giving the Alice a tentative pass for old school gaming purposes.

The probability of getting a really scary Alice(4+ powers) is harder to figure out since it involves eliminating the possibility of a reroll(which usually improves a power making it less scary then gaining a new one) and we should of course define a scary Alice as one with 4+ powers which involves more calculation at different levels and i am not getting out those math books. Suffice it to say, i consider the Alice more or less suitable for oldschool play, if you are willing to put up with the Express Exasperation ability.]

Whew that sure was fun! Anyway. Section V contains a variety of Optional Rules to cover situations that might come up in Voivodya. Rules for creating characters of noble birth(-1 con, get 1 favor per level to call in from other aristos), retainers, mounted combat and duelling injuries are provided, as well as a means of resolving large battles(essential for a campaign setting involving large battles, thus approval/dog slobber). The rules sacrifice versimilitude for ease and efficiency. The large battles are treated as a backdrop, with the actions of players within that battle being given a decisive factor. A table(numbered, starting at 2 for reasons that are about to become obvious) is made containing a list of enemies/enemy groups, from wimpiest to scariest. After they have decided an objective, the players face two choices of encounters. The number of rounds this first battle takes is the number of encounters they have to face until they achieve the objective…sort of.  Afterwards, d4+number of rounds fought in previous encounter determines the subsequent encounter on the table. So if you are quick and efficient in your first battle it is possible to achieve your objective with relatively few encounters but if you dally too long your chance of pulling the bit fat stinker at the end of the encounter table goes way up. No mention is made whether you may encounter the same thing twice, but the rules are clear enough for general use. Note you may abort your objective at any time when you are not fighting(you may instead pick a new one…okay). For overall resolution, the numerically inferior side gets a penalty on its d100 roll equal to the size disparity in percentages(modifiers for tactical situations) and the highest roll wins. Quick and Dirty.

The last section is a bewildering number of random tables. Random tables for generating objectives, random animals, random intercepted communiques, random communication openers, random anonymities(alice in wonder esque one-use treasures that shrink or give clues in obtuse ways), random means of generating origin of characters born in Voivodja(good!), random dungeon rooms, random absurd banal treasure of weird, and Events. The events concern backdrop events of the Slow War and can vary from “Queen announces Cricket Game” to “Massive battle forecluded*, disasterous for all sides” to the excellent “Time distortion causes reverse battle between Heart and Red forces, other houses scramble to use their knowledge of the fight (whose outcome they know) to un-save certain enemies” to the banal “Strange new recipe discovered.” Kind of the events you’d expect in a massive and pointless conflict in a temporally distorted land of unreason. And this:

“Time distortion undoes previous event.”

Take a moment to let the implications of that sink in. Its easy to look at Voivodja as a sort of goofy parody setting but that,  for me, cemented the horror component of RaPl. Voivodja is a place of utter nihilism, a ragtag land without rhyme or reason, where mad inhabitants war pointlessly over nothing, attaining no permanent victory. A place where even space and time break down. The silliness is interspersed with the horror as though they are one and the same. The idiotic and pointless behavior of its inhabitants takes on a sinister aspect as it piles on and the result is a foreboding sense of isolation. Over a long campaign, i imagine it to be every bit as bleak as the barren wastes of Carcosa, the opressed continents of Eredane or the war-torn hell-jungles of Quelong, and i don’t know if that was the intention, i suspect it was.

The time and space distortions, while very interesting and effective in single adventures, might outstay their welcome on a protracted campaign. A noneuclidean dungeon is very interesting but a noneuclidian campaign might not be to everyone’s taste. If everything is weird then nothing is weird, and the weirdness just gets exhausting after a while.

Some might espouse that the space/time distortions present interesting challenges and learning how to navigate them to be part of the game, and to an extent this is a valid point of view. Yet many of these distortions seem arbitrary, with no means of controlling or predicting them, placing the characters at the whim of a fickle space and time that sweeps away victory and defeat alike. Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror were kind of okay, but those were modules, not a campaign setting. Ultimately, Red and Pleasant Land caters to a very specific sort of gamer and i do not know if i am he. Could i run it and have fun with it? Probably, it has lots of interesting shit, but what it lacks is a sort of core. A soul. It feels…hollow?

Overall, i find RaPl to be a creative take on DnD with plentiful good design choices, a focus on puzzle-solving and interaction in lieu of mere hackery and slashery, but it is not to my taste. To me it is the fecund creativity of Moorcock’s Chaos that leaves only barren desert in its wake. Does it deserve its grab bag full of Emmies? It is written in a whimsical irreverent fashion, presents a unique if eccentric take on dungeons and dragons, brimms with bizarre creativity and it is fully functional and well designed. I can see why people would rate it highly. As a creative exercise/blueprint for good graphic design and game development its a noble achievement, its tables should prove helpful for those men who wield such crutches(and your Prince is among them), as a campaign setting i cannot in good conscience recommend it. It is not the second coming of DnD, but it is a worthy endaevour, even though i don’t like it. It is better then 4e.

Final Verdict: When he opens his red eyes in the red night there is his red land: It is inverted, rigid and wrong. (10 of 7 smraelop)

*Foreclusion is one of the distortions in Red and Pleasant Land, and it refers to people reacting to events that have not yet happened, but are predetermined anyway. RaPl gives hints on how to ‘trick’ one’s way out of a foreclusion, for example, if a child forecludes his mother drowning one could easily save the mother and drown a person dressed up as the childs mother. It is the perception that has already happened after all.

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4 thoughts on “PrinceofNothingReviews: A Red and Pleasant Land, Part V: Undo Previous Event or A Desert Called DnD

  1. Thanks for the balanced and thoughtful review. Some of what you identified in the five parts sounds pretty good. While it all seems whacy and inventive, it does seem to me – though your review did not indicate this – that RPL is best run with players of limited exposure to D&D, or who prefer the silly/cutesy stuff (despite there being a lot of horror with the whimsy). If I was a player, the setting would quickly grow tiresome. But I prefer more consistency in a setting, something to engage with in a meaninful way. Most of my players have likewise wanted depth and verisimilitude from my campaigns.

    Zak benefits from having non-demanding players, and more broadly from his adoring fanbase. His reputation as a creative genius also seems to cloud peoples’ judgement, like Matt Finch declaring RPL to be the best thing D&D ever produced – though he could not say why or even site an example of its superincredibleawesomeness.

    Anyway, I am a little surprised to hear you say you use the crutch of random tables. Not that I think any less of you – maybe rolling on random tables makes the heroin that much better?

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    1. Hahaha i must shamefully admit to using random encounter tables in my dungeons, random tables for my Sial-Atramentar abilities(i should upgrade that one to d12, i have more ideas) and random tables for my overland encounters next to the ones i usually create, since random encounters in a dungeon add an extra element of play, therefore i am an offender on paper if not in spirit. Some of those tables are good, but randomly stocking a dungeon never made sense to me(with the exception of the sublime B1 In Search of the Unknown, which i have run at least 3 times now). Generally your brain can do it better then a table.

      I too prefer culturewank fantasy-porn settings to gonzo silliness or the nihilistic absurdism of Rapland, but i imagine puzzle-gamers or more light hearted silly roleplayers might find it more to their taste. Frankly, i think most people just read it and look at it stylistically or as some sort of pseudo-art project rather then as an actual supplement intended for play.

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  2. From your description of the Alice, and the arbitrary nature of the setting itself, it seems that RaPland is designed for the special snowflake DM’s girlfriend/significant other player. I could see other players being honked off by a non-neutral referee.

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