Hah! The reviewing blitzkrieg continues unabated. Ever onward.
England Upturned is an English Civil War sandbox taking place in 1642, after the Thirty Years War. Tensions are mounting but the shit has not yet hit the fan. The author is a secretive individual by the name of Barry Blatt, whom I suspect is something of a history afficianado, if not a graduated expert on the subject. The whole work is permeated with a wealth of historical anecdotes and references which adds a welcome bit of versimilitude, more then I have seen in an OSR product thus far. But I digress, on to the review.
England Upturned is hard to judge because it is many things at the same time. It is best described as an Investigative Adventure with Sandbox-like elements coupled with a 20+ page supplement on running games in the English Civil War. Even that would not do it justice.
We start with a three page introduction on the political situation where Avalanche would probably use 10 pages. The introduction sets the stage and covers all the basics, driving home the point just how fucking complex the situation is.
Adventure Synopsis Bottom line: Southeastlincolnshire (the Part of Holland (!)), a particularly swampy part of England, is being drained by a local aristocrat on authority of the much hated King and the locals, who fowl and fish there, are not particularly pleased with this. The nobleman, a man by the name of Andrew Smeaton, is actually a wizard and alchemist looking for the Phylactery of the ancient english monarch King John, himself secretely a wizard of great power.
Turd in the punchbowl is the danish Witch Hunter and veteran of the Thirty Years War Niklas Brahe, who may or may not be the Avatar of Odin (rope scar, eyepatch, two raven familiars, runesword etc. etc.), come to take vengeance upon the king for his crimes against the Danes four centuries ago. To enact this vengeance he plans to perform an ancient ritual known as the Upturning, which will literally turn a segment of the world upside down, exposing the hollow world and its inhabitants, the dreaded Niflugr!
As one can see, the label Weird is not just for show. The adventure opens with an overview of the political and religious affiliations of the major settlements in the Part of Holland, as well as a means of resolving the scenario should the players simply wander through the Part of Holland and adventure at their leasure, never arriving at the village of Fosdyke and meeting either Brahe or Smeaton. Points for thoroughness, though the adventure does point out that the players should come across rumours of great treasure in the swamps near the dig-site, which should attract players like flies. Crucially, both major NPCs are given a schedule and the adventure provides you with a timetable/daily schedule of their actions and a date on which the Phylactery is found, should the PCs not interfere. Six points for griffindor!
This segment is followed by an overview of South East Lincolnshire. It consists mostly of farms, fens and mudflats and that means only one thing. Dysentry and Ague rules baby! Aww yeah. The more I learn about historical periods, the more I realise you don’t neccesarily need supernatural hazards to inspire dread, the past had plenty of mundane hazards that were every bit as dangerous, if not more so, then animated skeletons. Dysentry is gained from drinking the water or falling in the swamp, of which there is a shitload. It is only mildly deadly and very survivable if the player has enough ale and clean water each day. Drinking unclean water just prolongs the infection. Ouch. The Ague, or Malaria as it is called nowadays, is rather more serious AND PERMANENTLY DEBILITATING. Do not get infected with the Ague. How does one get infected? Mosquitoes, that live near the swamps where, guess what, you are going to be doing your adventuring. The effect is debilitating but not so much that your character becomes unplayable, just seriously hampered.
No sandbox would be complete without a random weather table*, a table for generating random settlements with random populations (very basic, alignments and class levels only) and an interesting random quirk table to add some colour to these otherwise nearly blank slates (ridiculously superstitious, insanely pious, alcoholic, bigot). Naturally, the purpose of these random people, beyond creating fun exciting adventure, is to be a source of rumours!
The rumours themselves follow a format that I have not seen before. Depending on who you talk to (normal citizen, secret witch, cleric, fighter etc.), the rumours are either mundane, historical or supernatural in nature. Depending on your charisma and wisdom bonus + a dice roll, they are either true, false or possible/meaningless. I do not know if it is the best rumour table I have ever seen but it certainly is the most elaborate. Expect such rumours as:
-If you chew a clove of garlic every day it will prevent the ague.
-The last really big battle in Lincolnshire was against the French. They had invaded England in support of Bad King John, and stayed here even after the evil bastard had died. The great knight Sir William Marshall threw them out and secured the kingdom for Henry II
– The Muggletonians say that Heaven lies six miles above the surface of the Earth, and that anyone can see it if they can work out how to fly high enough. Hell lies six miles under the earth, but only the Cornish tin miners have gone that deep
4 pages of rumours, the bulk of dubious use, but enough are provided to get your PCs in the direction of Fosdyke and the digging-site. Points for versimilitude but a question mark on the usefullness for the adventure proper. For a campaign though, great and atmospheric!
More random fucking tables! On the road to the village of Fosdyke you can encounter many things, all of them mundane. From gentlemen, wandering locals to messengers to companies of soldiers. Beyond very simple objectives, these are included mostly for versimilitude’s sake.
A section on law and order deserves mention since the adventure cleverly uses the existence of recusancy law (you get fined a silver piece if you skip the Church of England on Sunday) to increase the chance of the PCs meeting the NPCs (both will be at the Church on Sunday).
The gazzeteer of Part of Holland is alright. Fleet is a village on the edge of the Fens that has rumours of a vast herron stalking boats, in actuality a strange starfish-like creature that attacks (there is only 1% chance of actually encountering it, this one sucks). Frampton is plagued by a Bonnacon Calf and a warlock is prepared to pay for parts of it, thinking it is a gorgon (nice one). With the exception of an actual encounter with a Barghuest, nearly all villages have mundane events going on or rumours, mostly quite good. Rumours and situations abound, involving witchcraft, religious squabbeling, political squabbeling, 5 Royalist cavaliers that have been occupying an inn while refusing to pay for the food and a bandit in a herron mask. Overall, not as packed with adventure possibilities as the gazzeteer of Better Then Any Man, but capable of supporting the adventure, and it gives players some reason to explore. It succeeds remarkably well in making almost every village at least feel like it has something going on. Places do not feel static. Eye-ball estimate is that its about 70% flavour/versimilitude/rumours and 30% adventure.
This thing just keeps on going. There is the option to visit Smeaton hall and discover Andrew Smeaton’s secret library, containing, among other things, a Temporal Stasis scroll written in Coptic as well as notes on Smeaton’s evil plan, all entirely optional. You get yourself a ship inn, not weird but well detailed and vivid, feeling like an actual place with inhabitants, part of an old viking rune stone needed to stop Niklas from triggering the Upturning (the other half can be found in the Church in Fosdyke), a farm with a crudgety old farmer who digs up old roman artifacts (all of little value) etc.
Fosdyke proper is really well done. The Village of Homlet Aesthetic has been done away with in favour of giving us what we really fucking need: A map of the overal area, each location with an important NPC and a tonne of inter-relations, history, gossip and personal goals to keep us going and facilitate the intrigue that is the bread and butter of an investigative adventure. There is even a convicted witch that you can dig up and persuade to use her magics against Smeaton, since she was convicted by Smeaton’s father.** Should this prove unfeasible, her bones may be fashioned into a talisman against Smeaton’s magic. Multiple inhabitants have notes on how they may be persuaded to aid the PCs against Smeaton. I am shocked how natural the place feels.
The last two locations being described are the Fosdyke Church, which holds the secret workplace of Andrew Smeaton, and the dig site, which is the place to be investigated. At this point, it is pretty obvious PC’s who just go about brazenly assaulting either Brahe or Smeaton are going to find themselves on the wrong end of a Lynch mobb pretty soon, and muskets ignore 5 points of AC just so you know. The church continues the trend we see thus far in terms of design, it looks and feels like a church, which means a lot of versimilitude but also a lot of detail that could be considered superfluous (although a tomb holding the hideous skeleton of a fish-woman is a nice hint). Nevertheless, some great treasure (a tiny stone gargoyle that animates upon it’s owners death) as well as a hideous guardian (Seaman fetus in a jar with life-draining umbilicus attack). The notes in different languages remind me of a Call of Cthulhu adventure in the best of ways.
The dig site proper is a mundane affair, as one expects. It also manages to convey a sense of misery and Smeaton with his sinister troupe of Catholic Irish workers, many of them suffering from the Ague or dysentry, hints delightfully at a parochial sort of Lovecraft. A lot have history, personalities and objectives, which is vital in an investigative adventure and therefore earns full credit. Rules are provided to facilitate the organic recovery of artifacts from the muddy swamp should the players decide to go ‘undercover’ by signing on as workers***. If they do so, it is obvious Smeaton is up to something, as his use of magic clearly labels him as a Witch, and therefore serious shit is about to go down.
Multiple ways of resolving the scenario are provided, particularly if the PCs fuck up by leaving one of the two ne’erdowells alive. If Smeaton finds the Phylactery of King John SHIT QUICKLY GOES DOWN as his Irish priest will be possessed and england will once more know the terror of King John, level 12 magic user. Should Brahe do alright (both results are possible), the result is even worse, and a segment of the world flips upside down to reveal the hollow world inside, which is populated by sorcerously mutated neanderthals (the Niflugr) and the descendants of Queen Boudicca’s followers that now resemble bizarre duck-men. The adventure goes completely batshit at this point. An extra complication is thrown into the mix with addition of a Homonculus that can enter the game if Smeaton finds the Crucible of Hermes within the dig site, but any of the three results coupled with the impending Civil War should generate enough play for sessions on end.
We get, since we do not have enough shit going on, an incomplete description of the Crucible of Hermes, the rules for making Homonculi (who need to be granted ability scores or the blood of powerful men in order to become whole) as well as an introduction of Quabbalism and the power of the Sephiroth using this artifact, which is sadly not complete. Mastering the Sephiroth using the Crucible of Hermes is, again, in itself a campaign. It is unfortunate that the game notes that mastering the last Sephiroth, Keter, that stands above all others, is equivalent to character death as his mind enters higher spheres and his body becomes a commatose immortal. Dick move bro.
The last 28 pages are notes on running a campaign during the English Civil war. Appropriate arms are described, with notes on Tuck’s and Estoc sabres as well as Pikes (an unforgiveable omission from the Lotfp core rules if you ask me). Because this is an investigative scenario, the rules for persuasion and reaction are similarly expanded. Even alignment rules have been reworked so as to fit with the spirit of the times (Royalist vs Republican and Cavalier vs Roundhead respectively).
By far the most impressive and interesting part of this section are the rules and notes on religion. A plethora of religious and political (often both) sects are provided, all of them welcomely monotheistic, many of them with new spells or unique benefits. Dour and grim puritains, the hated Catholics, the Royalist Anglicans, the pope-hating Presbyterians, the proto-communistic Diggers etc. etc. etc. Very nicely done. There is a sense of enthusiasm and genuine excitement that bleeds through this section that is kind of infectious.
Pros: Intelligent. Detailed. Brimming with versimilitude and historical detail. New rules facilitate historical simulation. Interesting foes. Great Treasure. By far the most impressive evocation of a historical setting I have seen thus far in the OSR. Great treasure. VERSIMILITUDE. EVERYONE TOGETHER NOW. VERSIMILITUDE.
Cons: Complex investigative scenario (Complexity indicating that it has a lot of moving parts). Will require extensive reading to run properly. Might be a bit impenetrable to anyone not familiar with the setting. Crucible of Hermes section lamentably incomplete. Time investment might be too much for the more casual GM. Kind of straddles the line between an adventure and a campaign setting, a format I have never been a great fan of.
Bottom line: An ambitious, well-researched, witty investigative sandbox that will require time and effort for anyone to run. It is very impressive, brimming with creative elements and anyone taking the time to do so can probably get something really great out of this. Avoid if you are a low prep GM or you do not like Historical Fantasy (you know who you are). I’d go so far as to call this one a definite winner for Loftfp. Blatt is a smart guy who knows both his history and his DnD. 8.5 out of 10.
* = The most elegant, intricate and oddly realistic random weather table I have ever seen. You get yourself a table. Each day, add d4 and subtract d4, then consult the table. Each seperate sort of weather has a d4 chance of more extreme weather like torrential downpour, snow, heavy rain or drought. All in all, very well done, and great job avoiding a system that is likely to create freak jumps (although those have been known to occur in real life).
** = A fucking brilliant idea. However, at the level the adventure seems geared towards, a Speak to the Dead spell is likely to be unavailable, a lamentable oversight. Perhaps a kind and generous GM should see to it that an appropriate scroll makes its way into the PC’s hands?
*** = d10 each hour, with a bonus based on the number of diggers as well as certain results, mimicking a gradual sort of progress. Some results will cause collapses, inflicting damage and possibly drowning incautious PCs. The rules describing exhaustion are also very welcome, preventing a sudden murderous ambush after 8 hours of back-breaking exertion.