To mark the splendid occasion of my hale and entirely sane return to the Nether Realms, I have taken a break from reviewing Lotfp products to instead take a look at the excellent Hill Cantons Fever-Dreaming Marlinko citybook by eccentric Texan-borne OSR genius Chrik Kutalik.
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is a supplement detailing the town of Marlinko, last city before one enters the dream-regions of the Weird where normal natural law starts to break down. Like Slumbering Ursine Dunes, it seems fuelled by a strange cocktail of Slavic Myth, Vancian Dying Earth tropes and 30s sci-fi influences on Acid. Also, like Slumbering Ursine Dunes, it is really great and you should get it (though I recommend you also read the pay-what-you-want 8-page supplement describing the Hill Cantons Cosmology in greater detail to get a firmer grip on Marlinko’s nebulous religious sects).
FDM works and it works well for several reasons, but it’s greatest strength lies in its focus on adventure. Rather then wasting time with pages upon pages of crunch-fluff, Marlinko’s content is geared towards generating exciting adventures or providing diverting things for PCs to do, thus making this a very useful supplement. If fluff is included, it tends to be both hilarious and atmospheric, adding to the flavour of the adventure, rather then diluting it.
The adventure begins with a very short introduction that gives you both helpful pointers on how to use Fever-Dreaming Marlinko as well as pointing out some features that GM’s should familiarize themselves with before actual play begins. And then we are off.
Marlinko is a town of about 7000 people, conveniently divided into 4 districts or Contrada’s, centred around the Tomb of the Five Gods (one for each district, one unknown). Each Contrada has its own culture, holidays, religious rites, architecture and history, and the Contrada’s compete bi-annually in great chariot races (the Black Races) using convict jockeys. The winner goes free, the losers get hanged. Nice.
What follows is a lovely overview of each Contrada, no more then 4 pages in length, detailing the socio-economic status of its inhabitants, heraldry, several features of note (i.e Vcelar Contrada contains Jarek’s Manse and tiger pit, Obchodnik contains the Serene Guild of Seers, Augurs, Runecasters and Wainwrights etc. etc.) as well as a list of random encounter tables.
The locations are both imaginative as well as conducive to the adventuring profession, be it as adventure locations (The Temple of the Blood Jesus cult) or merely in support thereof (The Guild of Condotierre, Linkboys, Roustabouts and Stevedores’s Dome of Supernal Dealings may be used to hire various unionized henchmen). This approach does wonders. Rather then drowning a prospective GM in an ocean of mediocre and trivial detail, we are instead given just the right amount to make each Contrada feel distinct and to provide fuel for dash-daring acts of heroism and bravery.
So too the random encounters. While each table does contain the habitual thieves, swindlers, wandering duellists and hellions (groups of children who will pelt the party with stones if not paid off with 10 gp), each contrada also has several unique encounters. And what encounters they are! A hairless hustler offers the party two bars of alchemical silver worth 200 gp to an alchemist for 50 gp. He is not lying but the bars are radioactive! Maus is a paranoid lunatic that “rants and raves at the characters about the “Axis of Tindrthurn,” a secret postal and matchmaking service that he claims is trying to kill him. If the Chaos Level is 6 or greater, he is correct on all counts.” An encounter with the Contrada idiot! And more! These are all great and should make each trip to Marlinko more memorable, as good random encounters should.
No good city supplement is complete without its share of NPCs. Alongside the quirkyness I have come to expect from a Kutalik supplement, most NPCs can serve as either antagonists or patrons to a band of enterprising ruffians. With such luminaries as Fraza the Freakishly Honest Curio Dealer (honest businessman yet also very racist), Jarek the Nagsman (also runs the town’s only tiger wrestling arena) and the sinister Lady Szara (influential socialite and strigoi/Eld collaborator), who can go wrong?
What else? A rumour table! For when your PCs are adventuring in town! The rumours provide not just adventuring hooks but also useful information (and occasionally less usefull information) on where to go to get certain, ahem, services. The quests have a distinctly Vancian ring to them, and often involve shenanigans or elements of pettiness, which I fucking love. The wicked bandit Libor the Lugubrious once more plagues the highways! “This year’s Great Race is expected to be tight and fiercely competitive. Pre-race sanctioned shenanigans are a time honored tradition. Jakus the Yakholder, Grandmaster of Hives and head of Sullen Apiarian contrada, is offering 500 gp apiece for “discrete gentlepersons” who “appropriate” trophies from the well-guarded Golden Swine contrada hall.” Npcs plot against other. Npcs!
As a point of criticism, some of the hooks contain references to Misty Isles of the Eld (another supplement I am confident I shall get too in time) and the upcoming What Ho, Frog Demons?, which makes this section less useful on its own. I am curious about the mention of a Beet God now though.
What city supplement would be complete without some adventuring locations? Marlinko gives us two fully fleshed out adventuring locations: The mansion of the hideous strigoi lady Szara, which can be expected to be the site of various acts of knavery and probable vampire slaying, and the temple of the Cult of the Blood Jesus. I like the quasi-three dimensional nature of the maps, which somehow manages to be clear and useful.
The mansion of Lady Szara itself is alright, in many ways a traditional adventure, with traps and various undead creatures scattered about. The charm lies mainly in the detail. A wight major domo with face powder to disguise his true nature. Zombie maids. The bizarre Eld Envoy and his four-armed giant ape slaves (10% chance to be encountered naked in a bed with lady Szara smoking lotus powder). So too the treasure. Alongside a dusty silver tea set we also find the odd dimensional hopping brooch with the command word written on the back backwards, as well as a collection of Eld BDSM worth 100 gp to a collosal pervert (like, say, Medved). Charming but not mindblowing. A noteworthy detail that I like is that some elements in the dungeon change if the Chaos Index in the city goes up! 7 out of 10.
The Catacombs of the Church of the Blood Jesus is done in a similar style. Traditional in form, creative in execution. The Church of the Blood Jesus is the result of the ramblings of a time-displaced Irish priest as re-interpreted by a former demon worshipping apostle. The results are about what you would expect. While initially harmless, the Cult’s Nun-maenads will become increasingly violent as the Chaos Index goes up. I also like it that the reason the town authorities (the Rada) do not put a stop to the cult is bribery and incompetence. Nice.
Vast alcoves of the boiled skeletons of the dead fill the catacombs of the 3-year old cult, as it has been grave robbing with a view of retro-baptizing the bodies of the deceased. Adventurers who manage to free and return an agressive badger from the sacrifical animal pen to a little girl will be led to a secret stash containing wonderous treasure. A robo-dwarf engineer. “A brand-new, richly-woven tapestry covers the north wall, depicting Father Jack preaching to his flock as nun-maenads rip apart a puzzled-looking goat in the foreground.” About 7.5 out of 10, as this one leaves more room for interaction with various NPCs and is less likely to descend into a slaughterhouse (at least until the nun-maenads are encountered). Various links with adventure hooks throughout the city make this one feel very firmly “embedded” within the city proper.
The nature of the Five Slumbering Demi-Gods of Marlinko is described, and, in keeping with the rest of the work, they are really strange and each have whimsical doctrines bordering on the farcical. A vaguely bee-headed god that brings both wealth and anxiety. A silver-faced, three-armed god preaches that all interactions must be on a quid pro quo basis and frowns upon all forms of charity (or even lovemaking) not abiding by said rules. A god of mis-placed anger and noise for its own sake. It is largely unknown what Caz the Corpulent really stands for, and it is considered entirely unimportant by his worshippers.
No city supplement would be complete without silly legal codes, and Marlinko provides in spades. Contrada Officials may ignore the law almost entirely when on official duty, and various crimes of passion arising from theological or philosophical debate tend to be ignored by the hideously corrupt and silly Rada that lords over Marlinko with a hap-hazardly clenched indifferent sort of fist. Punishments are given for various categories of crime, but all but the most grievous of charges can generally be escaped by copious application of gold pieces, which is excellent. Slandering the reputation of the City is taken very seriously though. To emphasize the long-standing tradition of confidence-cons in Marlinko, 2 sample cons are given for the kind and benevolent GM to unleash upon his unsuspecting players.
Further adventures are facilitized by 3 hooks, along with some notes on the guardians and the type of treasure one is likely to encounter in these locations. Perhaps unsuprisingly for a city adventure, all of them involve burglary and the theft of various nebulous objects, and the last one involves breaking and entering into the Tomb of the Five Gods (see also getting class XII hoards is hard) and will probably involve deiling with extremely angry and grouchy demi-gods.
What else? Like Ursine Dunes, Marlinko makes use of the Chaos Index, which increases by entering weird locations or slaying certain persons and which decreases by the clearing of chaotic dungeons or the slaughter of various chaotic creatures. As the Chaos Index goes up, the city starts suffering from increasingly strange events, street brawls, rioting, mass hallucinations, wandering monsters and ever-more elaborate Tiger bouts.
The last 24 pages offer a very short bestiary, several optional rules as well as a quintessentially Marlinkan equipment section for the GM’s delight. All of these seem useful and well thought out.
GP that is spent on fashionable apparel provides additional experience at the GM’s discretion. Bizarre creatures may be purchased in the city bazaar. A nice collapsible 24 foot pike with workable rules. Rates for assassinations, spells cast, the qualifications for purchase of animated wooden statues of pants-less barbarians, hirelings hired (treating them well nets you benefits with the hirelings guild, treating them poorly nets you their wrath), and so on and so forth. Even real-estate may be acquired (which grants additional xp at a 1 xp for 2 gp ration). Of final note (alongside the functional but somewhat clunky Tiger wrestling rules) are the carousing rules, inspired by longstanding OSR figure Jeff Rients. Gp may be spent on nights boozing and wenching for direct xp gain, but with a caveat. Inexperienced carousers risk Losing their shit, which adds all manner of complications, weddings, crabs, waking up to a serial killer hovering over you, and so on and so forth. Carousing costs and random events are different for each Contrada.
Lest I forget, to add a final neck-kick to an already glorious arena performance, Marlinko introduces two new classes, the Mountebank, a thief/illusionist sort of swindler class to add the neccessary mechanical latticework to prop up the flavourful pavillion that is Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. The addition of Robo-Dwarves as a playable class is also welcome, though the class has relatively little to distinguish it from its flesh-and-bone counterpart (besides an aversion to armour made of organic materials, a diet of lamp oil and rusty bits, a natural AC of 8 and a tendency to speak in robotic monotone voices and vaguely reference “the Future” in casual conversation.
Bottom line: Kutalik does it again. As opposed to the shotgun-approach of the well-known City State of the Invincible Overlord supplement, Marlinko achieves all of its aims like a sniper-bullet to the brain. A carefully balanced mixture of adventure, rules, fluff and player option. Every section gives you just enough to work with. Enough detail to feel lived in without getting bogged down in minutiae. Inspiration drips from nearly every page. Rules are put into play to evoke a certain atmosphere, never simply for their own sake. Despite its length of only 68 pages, an amazing amount of ideas are conveyed. Glorious (and probably required reading for anyone seeking to do his own citybook or supplement). 9 out of 10.