Monkey Business (2017)
Full disclaimer: I was asked to review this strange pay-what-you want adventure nominally compatible with the OSR by fellow rpg-blogger and fellow Euro-trash Jens Durke aka the Disoriented Ranger (Swamp-German hello to you my Teutonic brother in arms!). I was naturally flattered and took to the task post-haste (or semi-post haste). Unfortunately it sucks in my opinion. I will attempt to provide some constructive criticism in addition to the usual snarking. One big problem is that this module attempts comedy, yet the author hails from Germany. Tragedy ensues.
Monkey Buisness is a bizarre, nonsensical 102-page behemoth of an adventure location generator for low to mid level characters. Our band of heroes must travel into athe jungle and stop a band of hyper-intelligent apes from pushing mutagenic fungus drugs onto the inhabitants. I think. It gets less coherent from thereon out.
The adventure location is sub-divided into 2 pdfs each, one giving an outline of the major players and the random encounter tables, the other providing stats, maps, tonnes of generators and random tables and so on and so forth.
The first jarring thing I noticed is the writing (knock on wood/take a shot). While it is not grammatically incorrect, it feels off in the way only non-native english can feel off. It is by no means a deal breaker, just something that makes assimilating the text harder. For example:
Goblins, to give another example, will develop loyalty together with very practical suicidal tendencies and (yes, this is true) explode when hit with pointy things, the fungus having altered their body chemistry and what not. The list goes on (and will be found further below in detail). All pay as good as they can to get that next fix. Ecology and economy of the whole area are already affected heavily by the whole affair and it won’t take long for this enterprise to expand beyond its borders.
The breezy informal chat-room style of writing outlined above hinders assimilation of the ideas being presented and is not evocative. The adventure could have used a native-english editor or proof-reader.
We start off, as is only just and proper, with a rumour table, or more accurately a hook table. The hooks being presented are not bad, considering the silly nature of the core adventure and vary from a mysterious drug (the aforementioned fungus stuff) making it into a harbor and the characters being hired to investigate to, well, this:
6. The elves seem to be worried about something they call “The Big Sleep” and weird freak accidents start to happen all over the place, like a whale falling with very high velocity unto a market place in that one town (the elves know that some of their brothers and sisters are in some sort of dire predicament, but wouldn’t go near it and that’s where the characters get involved: they have to find those elves and help them).
If I am not mistaken that is a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference. Regardless, the rumours are followed by a hook or quest seed in parentheses and are, at the very least, a useful way of getting the characters to go on the adventure.
The next is a section on Dramatis Personae that annoys me right off the bat by providing partial special abilities whilst the actual stats are located in another appendix. Do full stats here or just describe the motivations and characters. The Dramatis personae themselves are all silly and the main villains vaguely reminiscent of the DK Crew as re-imagined by Clarence Boddiker. The main villains are a band of Gorilla’s with odd special abilities attempting to push psycho-active fungus drugs onto the surrounding jungle area, aided by a horde of Orangutan drug pushers, chimpansee ninjas and exploding goblin mutants addicted to football. I can’t get worked up over it, it’s too silly. My gonzo meter can’t handle this level of silly, it falls off my narrow emotional spectrum into the gaping black abyss of dispassionate loathing.
I will give Jens some credit for doing some things right however. First: Not all the Gorilla villains are immediately hostile and some may be bargained with. Second: There is a renegade orangutang drug pusher that may be befriended in this extremely silly Scarface-meets-Jungle-Book-meets-Mario smackdown.
Third: Faction play. While the Gorilla’s are clearly the main enemy of this adventure, additional factions may alternately be befriended or interacted with, which adds variety to the adventure. In no particular order: A band of alien visitors poorly disguised as a British Colonial Expedition, Tribes of pulp-style Cannibals (resistant to the drug because of their diet of human flesh), odd Mushroom Pigmies that voluntarily submit to being eaten (which grants super powers) and a band of carnies whose powers have become real. A lot of it is weird and wacky for the sake of being weird and wacky, but if that is your thing then by all means go for it. Magic mimes, a magician that keeps hurting himself, drug-addicted Tarzan etc. etc.
After this cast of…something, we get a random table (roll d20+d8 and god help you if you do not have a d6 handy) with random sub-tables folded into each entry to ensure people have something to do whilst traipsing through the jungle. Some mention is made of using weather tables but it is left too vague to be useful, a missed opportunity.
The entries themselves reflect the rather too breezy style of the entire work and are often so vague as to be less then useful. Bugs do something interesting is a literal entry. Again, what was needed was a d20 or for all I care a d50 table of short, terse evocative sentences, not this laundry list. It is the writer’s task to help the GM make evocative encounters. A Snake drops on you!!! does not help me with that. Take this sub-entry on Alien missionaries for example:
8: They actually see one of their transport ships landing in the distance, make it magnificent and scary!)
Damn it Disoriented Ranger, that is your job. You need to give me the power to help me make that into the cool thing you envision it to be. Many of the ideas lack stats or appropriate mechanics. The Gorilla’s have a tank but where are its stats. Fuck.
Next up are notes on the drug itself. The psychedelic fungus affects all sorts of creatures differently and is actually a type of alien, fungus-like entity that seeks influence in our world and uses elves and other creatures as a medium to do so. Effects on different creatures are fairly well defined, as are withdrawal symptoms. Some of the effects are really fucking weird and genuinely unnerving. Affected reptiles will enter your dream-space and make you perform horrible acts in your sleep or speak strange, cryptic prophecies. While it is not mentioned in Jens’s appendix N, some of this stuff is more reminiscent of Matango then anything else. I find it a pity the author went for silly and not more serious, as the idea of an expansionist fungus god waging a jungle drug war using infested apes is pretty interesting. There is a note on the Shroom being intelligent and using and learning from magic users under its influence but as is typical for the rest of the work, there are relatively few guidelines on how to handle this and it is left up to the GM to make it work somehow. The eventual goals of the Shroom are mostly left vague and up to the GM, again, a shame. Better to give us a single really great hook/idea then a million half-baked ideas.
The appendix (also a monstrous 52 pages) describes various methods for random jungle generation. To the author’s credit the adventure contains various cheat sheets and tables to help make your job easier. It completely cancels this out by making each hex too complex and adding too many properties to what is supposed to be a silly, nonsensical jungle crawl against drug pushing anachronistic gorillas. The amount of steps needed to fill but a single hex is rather daunting, far more suitable for a serious sandbox game in the manner of Kevin Crawford. To the module’s credit, detailed examples are given where needed, making it fairly easy to use. Allow me to illustrate by way of example, rather then going over every sub-mechanism by piece.
Okay. So well roll d100 for the landscape feature first. We roll a 37 (Part of Rivers and Plains, Resource Level 3) and note down 37. Hills and Rivers (lots of jungle). We also note down its elevation (the first digit of the d100) and note this down too. Next we roll a d6 times the resource level to determine the faction presence within the hex.
Thus we roll 3d6 for each faction.
Gorillas – 13
Ruins – 7
Cannibals – 8
Mushrooms – 10
Aliens – 10
Next up, each faction has a detailed schematic with a number of structures and a point cost, and you are supposed to spend these points accordingly. Scores over 15 and in one case 20 indicate some sort of regional dominance, and tend to double the base population of faction people in the area. You are supposed to be able to increase and decrease the wealth level of each faction but this is not really codified. Anyway, from this we can tell this area has a Gorilla Hidden base and 3 Hidden stashes of smack, One medium Ruin and two overgrown fragments, A village and a small camp of Cannibals, along with a band of Cannibal warriors, a Mushroom village and 4 pieces of Mushroom Artwork and 2 Alien artifacts. Naturally each entry can be further populated using their own random tables.
Did you think we were done? Oh you fool. Cannibal villages have further attributes that my be randomly generated using EVERY SINGLE FUCKING DICE YOU HAVE EXCEPTING THE D100. I actually really like this section and Carcosa could have used something like this, perhaps I’ll nick it for a round 2.
The combined result is the population of the tribe. A single throw of all of these dice will tell you what the tribe does with its wounded, its chieftain, its chief shaman, the state of its warrior population, its general cultural level and so on. Cutural rolls are made to see if the tribe has some resource the characters want, whilst many of the results influence factors like tribe morale and reaction rolls. It is really quite nicely done and should generate a fairly diverse assembly of villages all together.
The ruins section betrays a fondness for random dungeon generation that I neither share nor can appreciate. It is vaguely reminiscent of the old Wilderlands products, only without the short evocative encounters that permeated those maps. Instead we just get endless tables with single word descriptions, random treasure consisting of a number of keywords and so on. The occasional neat entry (Elephant Graveyard, Fountain of Youth etc.) does little to make it worth your while. While these tables can conceivably be used to stock quite a bit of hexes with playable ruins, the amount of work that ultimately goes into them and the end result rather renders the whole thing moot. It focuses on the mundane in lieu of giving us a few interesting nuggets to use as framework for the dungeon proper. All these procedures for establishing what is north and how the dungeon is connected and so on and so forth, it doesn’t do it for me.
The Gorilla Headquarters is at least somewhat mapped out, and the various inhabitants are fully statted out in the Appendices. The map is nice and useful, complete with scale and whatnot. A gridmap is lacking but fuck gridmaps. It is very silly but there are some good elements to it. It feels alive. Creatures are doing things (things that are stupid but still, within the logic of the adventure it makes sense). The goblin chief is banging exploding goblins. Bling Kong is smoking cigars or chilling with his shorn gorilla harem etc. The treasure is a cop-out, mostly procedurally generated random jungle treasure :(.
It feels like an actual headquarters, not like a dungeon made to resemble headquarters, which I really dig. A point in its disfavor is that sometimes encounter numbers are not given for certain areas which is FUCKING BULLSHIT.
This place is a fucking fortress btw. A frontal assault is likely to get the entire temple up and about and ready to kick the player’s asses. I would have appreciated some sort of strategy or battle plan for the Gorilla’s, which is sadly lacking. So, to summarize, nice map, good verisimilitude, multiple entrances into the fortress and nonlinear exploration possible (10 points for griffindor), lethal surprises galore (from Chimp ninja’s to orangutan s with 1920s sniper rifles). All very general but not bad for a 3 page dungeon.
Treasure sucks ass. Random tables with words with randomly generated gp value. No. Give me some good stuff. A brass torso from some sort of statue with mysterious origins and the other limbs located elsewhere is good stuff, Mysterious Herd Animals worth 25 gp each is not.
The monsters are stupid but deserve props for having interesting abilities that make tackling them a challenge in tactics and strategy. King Kolossus increases in size as he gets hit and even has a centre-piece on the temple that he can climb and leap down from in a final showdown (take 10 points for griffindor for that one), you have a sort of accelerating punch ape that can keep attacking as long as he hits, an ape covered in bling who can crush your armor with his hands (carrying around his vast weight of gold has made him super strong), magical carnies MY BRAIN IS MELTING I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE.
Fuck it, it is time for the verdict. I said I didn’t like Monkey Buisness and I stand by that statement. It is, however, by no means terrible. It has grand ambitions and about ten million ideas hindered by sloppy execution (granted, executing all of its ideas would probably add another 40 pages or so), overly complex random procedural mechanics more suitable for a sustained sandbox campaign ah la Crawford and adherents, silly silly puns and various half-baked ideas. It also has faction play, guidelines for interaction, tonnes of variation and it is without a doubt the weirdest fucking thing I have ever had to review. Anyone planning to run this behemoth of a mini-campaign is in for what will certainly be a time like no other. The level of detail in the procedural generation seems at odds with the often breezy tone of the adventure proper. Part of the problem in reviewing this is that the puns fall flat to me, therefore a lot of the impact is lost. Since it is PWYW I recommend anyone still interested after reading through this review to check it out for yourselves.
Pros: Adventure like no other. Some good random tables for generating settlements. Unique opponents. Good fortress dungeon. Unique abilities for all the main villains and many of the encounters. Faction play. Excellent tools and examples to assist in the procedural generation process.
Cons: Weird and silly. Breezy writing style. Half-baked ideas that are not worked out. Overly complex means of generating fairly standard ruins. Boring treasure. Sillyness is likely to turn many people off. I don’t know what to fucking do with this one.
Final Verdict: SO THEY’RE FINALLY HERE, PERFORMING FOR YOU. IF YOU KNOW THE WORDS, YOU GET TO JOIN IN TOO. PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER, IF YOU WANT TO CLAP. AS WE TAKE YOU THROUGH THIS MONKEY RAP. 4 OUT OF 10.