Kenneth Hite (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Level 4 – 6
I‘ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
When I first read the premise behind Qelong I expected I would love it. The premise sounds exciting and novel and Hite is an rpg industry veteran. Its core is very solid with brilliant flourishes but there are some niggling annoyances that prevent it from achieving greatness. It is similar in some ways to Slumbering Ursine Dunes, both being a wilderness adventure with multiple factions and some unique environmental features and their own distinctive style, but Slumbering Ursine Dunes remains a far superior work (Thank you for those flowers Chris!). I am thus pleased to announce Loftp continues its spotless record of publishing flawed works with interesting premises and good atmosphere.
Qelong is a hexcrawl/campaign setting set in what is essentially fantasy vietnam, a region of ancient pagodas, great rivers, thick jungle and of course rice paddies dragged into a brutal, incomprehensible conflict between two god-like creatures in a neighboring land (think the thaumaturgical lovechild of WW1 and the Thirty Years War). Now it is stricken by the horrors of war; plague, famine, rampaging mercenaries, cannibalism, stray sorcery and ant-controlled shock troops. Sign me up.
The introduction sets the stage, and outlines the premise fairly well. A single magical artillery shell from this gigantic conflict has landed in the Qelong valley and is leaking Aakom (a sorcerous toxin) into the valley, fucking everything up. Then of course you have your factions, a column of rogue hive-mind shock troops, the slowly awakening monstrous spirit of the valley (the ley lines keeping her in check were fucked up by the war), ruthless foreign mercenaries (always a great addition to any warzone) seeking to harvest the Aakom and a strange cult of not quite buddhist monks that voluntarily submitted to dominion by the strange lotus. There is a lot of weird. Terrifying, alien, horrific weird. It is good!
Hite devotes a page to explaining this adventure and this section could have used an editor. Short evocative description is used to set the mood for this ‘wet, poisoned sandbox.’ It comes across as kind of incoherent and rambling, as though someone had been hitting the bong while writing it. The gist of it is that since this is an environment based adventure and thus we get more hooks and seeds in lieu hard-coded locations because whoooo knooooowwwwsss hoooooowwwww the adventuuuuuurrrreeeee wiiiiillllll goooooooo?!? I’ll give you a sample to illustrate my point.
Wherever they come from, story elements, once introduced, become part of a narrative in the players’ minds; Referees and players will find themselves almost unconsciously weaving further encounters into the ongoing story. A picaresque adventure – a series of dangers and incidents on the way to somewhere – is the likely result.
To contrast with:
Dogs whine over the carcasses of their masters, then tear out the intestines to feed themselves. Men kill each other for a handful of rice, or for a woman who can be beaten into cooking it. All around, sorcerous echoes and explosions ripple the skies, but as a constant drumbeat of vile thunder, not as anything aimed at anyone in the same country.
Still breezy and on the edge of creative writing 101 but very useful and immediately evocative. And of course the obligatory: the referee is free to change anything he doesn’t like yadda yadda. Let’s throw in a bit of metagamefaggotry.
I call this Prince’s Law of Prepublished Adventures: I suspect the majority of GM changes to prepublished adventures fall into 2 categories.
1) Arrogant buffoon with delusions of artistry changes perfectly functional adventure to satisfy petulant demands of manchild players or satisfy own ego/obsessive compulsion, making the end result slightly worse. Then again if you have that sort of GM you should burn down your game and walk away anyway so in a way you had it coming you slut.
2) Talented GM improves/salvages otherwise broken adventure that he insists on running for inexplicable reasons (time constraints?) in lieu of running a personalized session that is probably more satisfying to anyone involved anyway.
The rationale being that if you knew what you were doing better then the designer you would be making your own adventure instead of running a pre-made one. Furthermore, based on this law, I extrapolate the following axiom.
Prince’s Axiom of GM Creativity;
In general GMs will fall into 2 categories. Those that relentlessly convert and tinker with everything they use (everyone does this to a certain extent mind you) or those that strive to run the adventure/campaign as faithfully to the original source material as possible (in those instances where the campaign setting is a big selling point, i.e Star Wars).
Ergo, the percentage of times you need to inform the GM that he is free to meddle and tinker with a campaign setting or adventure approaches zero as n approaches infinity (or n approaches five) where n signifies elfgame adventures.
Of course Qelong forces you to customize it by leaving things very open by their very nature, a design decision I don’t like. Campaign settings generally give you a firm foundation with plenty of nooks and crannies to give your own twist to shit (I am of the opinion that if you use a pre-made campaign setting it should be one that allows you to run whatever type of adventures you find satisfying without altering half of it), adventures are best constructed so that you may run them with a minimum of preparation and self-assembly (B1 excused for specifically being made as sort of a training/introductory module), but Qelong strikes an odd balance between toolkit, adventure, hex crawl and campaign setting. Its too narrow and well defined for extended campaigning and too vague for an adventure (e.g it requires significant preparation/customization before running) to the detriment of a great premise with some good hooks, bits, concepts and ideas.
The Macguffin in Qelong is the magical cylinder, which provides (or at least CAN provide) a motive to go there. Plot hooks to follow: Lawful dudes can try to reactivate it and save the valley (or what is left of it anyway), Chaotic dudes are after prying off the rune-magical panel and selling it to chaotic wizards at terrible cost to the valley, neutral dudes you can kind of guess. Acceptable. A paragraph is devoted to suggesting that players might make for themselves, then gives suggestions what kind of goals the players might make for themselves. Hite hits the bong again.
Next up is a rumor table. d50 rumors baby. Everyone gets one randomly and you can get as many as you like for the extortionist price of 20 sp (the equivalent of gp in Loftp). While most of them are in fact true, enough of the rumours are misleading, false or useless to satisfy the sadistic GM.
The section on exploration has some cool shit. A note on weather gives details on weather effects and temperature and gives some crazy suggestions about magical weather n shit. Random table with list of effects plz! Take the fucking 10 minutes to scribble and codify some of those suggestions on a napkin so I can use it in my game. The suggestions are good but it feels rushed and unfinished. Suggestions and half-baked ideas are for blogs, this is a product people pay money for (or alternatively borrow from a close and personal friend). Contrast with Slumbering Ursine Dunes (Thank you for those flowers Chris!), effects properly codified, means given to increase, influence etc, randomly generate etc.
The disease section is developed properly in a paragraph or three, disease really adds to the warzone feel Qelong is going for, and no trip to Qelong would be complete without a horde of typhus-ridden refugees begging you for rations. By far the most interesting environmental factor is of course Aakom poisoning, a substance ‘somewhere between plutonium, azoth and mana.’ Aakom is the type of stuff even demons don’t lightly fuck with, thus it is both very precious and extremely dangerous to possess. Everyone in the valley accumulates Aakom as he eats infected food, drinks the infected water, breathes the valley air, takes damage from creatures within the valley (and neglects to cauterize or sterilize the wound) etc. The effects of Aakom poisoning are slow and insidious. Disorientation, weakness, disrupted magic, nightmares and a slowly creeping insanity that takes the form of nihilism and self-destructiveness. Poisoned individuals have a chance of re-animating after they have fallen. A percentage of the afflicted are cursed with an uncontrollable magic touch, hence the practice of removing the hands of Aakom infected in Qelong. Removing Aakom poisoning is, of course, extremely difficult and requires that one study the cylinder that it originates from, but a Cure Disease can delay and temporarily mask the effects. The Aakom poisoning adds a very interesting ticking-clock/resource management element to adventures in Qelong and is to be commended. It also gets across how fucked up Qelong is, since pretty much every villager is under the effects of Aakom poisoning.
Next up is a list of the different types of terrain one encounters on the hex map in Qelong, each provided with a short description and several encounters or plothooks. Most of these are very interesting, and I suspect Hite to be a master of the two sentence encounter art-form, allowing him to construct memorable encounters with relative ease. Mention is made of the golden lotus fields, whose ground up petals are restorative for the body and provide protection against Aakom poisoning but at the cost of becoming permanently in thrall to the Golden Lotus if one is not careful. All the encounters work really well as random encounters, running the gamut from encounters with disease-ridden refugees, cannibal villagers worshipping a crippled myrmidon, strange hallucination-like effects, mundane terror, supernatural terror, cursed temples and so on. Nearly all of them hit the bullseye and this section really helps set the mood in Qelong, good job.
The fun does not stop, every type of terrain is provided with its own random encounter table, which is contrasted by the encounters given above in that it is fairly sparse and does not go beyond just a number and a monster. Amusingly, Monsoons and Ruins may be encountered alongside things like cannibals or elephants. I like that. Natural hazards add something to the feel of a wilderness adventure and this provides abundantly. Notes are complete enough to allow you to run or randomly generate villages on the fly, and provide enough context to convey the exotic atmosphere of Qelong.
Monster section is great. Alongside such mundane threats (that are absolutely necessary in a jungle adventure) like Tigers, Elephants, various carrion eaters, packs of wild dogs, bandits and Cannibal villagers, we are confronted with myriad creatures drawn from south-east asian myth. Strange, fucked up ghosts, possessed animals, a lion thing with an elephants trunk, the myrmidons, the 4 headed avatar of the naga spirit the list goes on and on. This is a very good monster section (the rape-nagas that also drown people somehow fit seamlessly into the fucked up atmosphere of Qelong. The mundane threats are not just expected but necessary in a humid jungle crawl in fantasy vietnam, and the supernatural creatures are appropriately disturbing. Qelong, as it is portrayed, is hell. Super special awesome hell.
The actual setting is well done. The entryway into Qelong proper is the porttown of Qampong, filled up with aakom-poisoned refugees, criminals, mercenaries and greedy spice merchants. After that we get a massive cop-out where the capital city of Xam has been replaced with a strange rock plateau with a strange environment of the GM’s own divising. But hint hint Carcosa monsters work here. Fuck you. Write a paragraph hinting at it or something. We paid you to make the adventure goddamit.
The other locations are atmospheric enough; the NPCs are given sufficient context for us to run them properly (though unfortunately while they have motivation, the relationship with other factions does not get any more complex then I HATE YOU).
Another gripe is the treasure. The Cylinder is wondrous and exciting but all the loot is just boring old gold or silver with the occasional orchid-robe thrown in to make sure you are still paying attention. Qelong is exciting and full of horrors and wonders and Lich-elephants with morning-star trunks but the spoils are kind of lame which is a disappointment (tiny fragment of philosopher stone and mithril stilletto nonwithstanding). I get that Loftp is low magic but even mundane treasure does not have to be boring (hint hint SUD hint hint hint). Its not terrible, its just not particularly exciting. Disarming or looting the Cylinder proper itself is handled well, obstacles need to be overcome after its discovery that require one to travel and explore further before moving on, and of course, proximity to the Cylinder massively increases one’s exposure to Aakom.
When I began reading Qelong I was ready to proclaim to the world that it was a work of overlooked genius and in some ways this is true, yet I do not love Qelong. It has an interesting premise, good concept, good atmosphere, decent gameplay and overall very workmanlike execution. The creativity in designing the antagonists should make for a very memorable expedition to the far south. Its not the best, but its pretty solid and the setting is original. It has all the elements for a good hex crawl, but some of the elements could use more polish imho.
Bottom Line: Fuck it, for anyone interested in a nightmare haunted surrealist horrorshow in fantasy fucking vietnam I endorse it. It should make for several evenings of blood-splattered entertainment.
Final Verdict: Napalm in the morning! 7.5 out of 10