The Atheneum of Yearning (2017)
Level 3 – 6
I am proud to present the 2nd review request, a PWYW Lotfp 3rd party supplement. I give assurances to my other patron that the GREAT WORK is by no means neglected and continues on at a steady, if at times glacial, pace. The Atheneum of Yearning by Steven Oswald is a PWYW adventure for character levels 3 – 6. It is surprisingly good, but suffers from shoe-string budget production values and at times poor presentation, lacking the scribbly hen-scratchings of trendy artists to prop it up to the stratosphere of OSR underground greatness. Nevertheless, not a waste of time. This is the singular vision of one man, a man who could well have many tens of dollars and glory everlasting awaiting him if he keeps up this level of quality.
On to the adventure proper. It is only 17 pages long, with a title page, 50-rooms and a (much appreciated) cheat sheet to help run the thing. That also means its sparse and it doesn’t get bogged down. Instead ideas are presented at breakneck pace, often in semi-coherent form,
The premise is muddled and poorly communicated but essentially very simple. There is a Goonies-esque secret tunnel in someone’s basement. Nicolas Vashifstok, Dean of the Atherium and maybe Cult leader (his identity and role is poorly defined, a problem that persists throughout the adventure) either found or founded a library filled with weird lore in a search for the Pure Land, a utopia free from suffering. His efforts to open a gateway have not gone well, fucking up space and time and trapping him in a sort of stasis. The authorities have dealt with the problem by constructing a magically warded shell around the library. Unfortunately, others yearning for utopia have also found the tunnel and are now occupying the library. Enter the PCs, who discover the tunnel somewhere. Thus adventure.
I was rolling my eyes and biting my lips like a jaded pornstarlet about to enter into the weakest of gangbangs when I saw the hand-scribbled (yet useful, credit where it is due) map of the library but something immediately stood out. There is a list of responses for the home owner. Breaking in often causes him to fortify the house. The home-owner demands a cut of anything the adventurers carry out of his tunnel. The neighbours respond so and so. Killing the owner will do this and that. These are intelligent and useful guidelines included for adventures that are actually meant to be played.
There is a list of random events that take place on the street that chance each week but they are so vague as to be left up entirely to the GM. ‘A cursed crew has seized the street.’ ‘ A teen uses legal and illegal means to fundraise the creation of a food stall. He has no clue how to run or protect it.’ ‘Charity groups have stopped because of violence. Locals organize their defense, conflicting with desperate criminals.’ Too vague to be useful, but it is something. The city wherein this bizarre magically warded library is located really needed to be defined. Given Lotfp’s alternate dark fantasy europe, Paris or Londen would have been a good bet, provided you can figure out a way to explain a way a vast, rune-covered library that somehow generates rumors (Solution: the library has been hidden from sight with powerful magicks).
We get a rumor table but it’s weak as shit. Only d6 rumors, and all of them true and vague. Some kind of wizard heresy going on…or something, it was a bunch of rebels, the army could not kill them and that’s why they locked em in etc. etc.
Needed specificity, a problem that does not persist throughout the rest of the adventure. A shame.
Everything after that starts to kind of rock, and rock pretty hard. First of all the map. Yes, it’s ugly but it is legible, and more importantly, it A) looks like an actual library, B) allows for nonlinear exploration, C) has three floors, with vast parts of the ceiling missing and flight being readily available to allow EVEN MORE NONLINEAR EXPLORATION.
What else rocks about the adventure? Faction play bitch. The library contains several factions:
The Lost Children – a band of adults playing at being children, and in the possesion of a steady supply of pixie dust enabling flight. Think peter pan mixed with lord of the flies and you get it (And yes I caught the pig-head on a stick reference buddy).
Billy – An old man who is an expert in stealth who cannot leave the library until he fulfills a prophecy and gets rid of an evil wizard queen. The Lost children torment him ceaselessly.
Scientists – A band of wizards/alchemists continuing Nicolai’s endeavors to open a gateway into the Pure Land. SPECIFICITY. WHERE DO THE SCIENTISTS COME FROM. ARE THEY THE ILLUMINATI? FREEMASONS? DISCIPLES OF NOSTRADAMUS. GIVE US SOMETHING.
Mystics – A bunch of drug-using weirdo’s astrally projecting themselves into all manner of fantastical bodies of light.
Queen Alenia – An evil sorceress/queen that killed her world in her thirst for power and is now in the library, looking for a way to resurrect her dead sister. She drains the life from her enemies and is given Deus Ex Machina immunity until Billy obtains a certain artifact and kills her. Not your friend.
What rocks is that each of these factions has clear goals, meaning the PCs can find some sort of commonality and ways of interacting with them. Excellent design actually.
Second really interesting point. The random encounter tables are progressive, meaning that on a maximum result the dice-type increases (i.e 4 on a d4 means the type changes to d6). They are meant to simulate the gradual disruption of causality, starting with fairly normal encounters (factions members), and gradually degenerating into violent earthquakes, temporal duplicates of the PCs, extraplanar memory merchants, time travelers, rips in the space-time continuum and so on. Again, some point-deduction for brevity to the point of being unclear, like so:
13. Static Tears in Space: Large tears of static appear on surfaces. Disintegrate anything entering them. Save vs spell or lose cognition when looking at them. Something from the tears communicates its wish to help viewers forget the pain of thought.
Leaving room for some GM interpretation is one thing but what the fuck does this mean? Nevertheless, laser-gun wielding man unstuck in time —> Pretty good encounter. In fact all of the monsters rock. Ghost professors, Animated statue of the Library’s founder, an ooze that can take over people’s limbs, the Library guardian (tentacles oozing through cracks, lovecraftian disk-horror), a bird-headed demon who will fulfill a bargain to the letter if released (classic). The really tough monsters can generally be circumnavigated or avoided, and the horrific guardian is very powerful but can only enter the library at certain points. To keep players on their toes, traps and other hazards have been liberally dispersed throughout the library as an extra fuck you, but they never feel unfair or arbitrarily deadly (with one finger-removing arcane bastard of a trap being the exeption).
The interconnectedness is neat too, good use of keys and thank Garl Glittergold for the cheat sheet so you can figure it all out. What else? The treasure! A shitload of interesting books (The Rubiayat gives anyone a +5% xp bonus when carousing), another book that reveals unknown facts about the campaign, and in general a bunch of weird, flavorful works. Rare tea from a mystic fantasy world. A bronze executioners axe from the time of the Akemenid dynasty (some objects worth more to different buyers). A casket of resurrection (but only at great cost!). One bullshit point is the spells in this game, which are only given names so the GM has to do the heavy-lifting. Gay. Everything else is kind of neat.
There is a recurring theme of lost innocence and child-like wonder to this bizarre, cursed library. A cabinet that reveals a place of perfect wonder if you enter it and close the door (save or you don’t want to leave), a garden where you encounter your mother (no really, it is really well done and well described), a talking diary and whatnot.
If I had to use word to describe this adventure it is interconnectedness. Everything has a relation to everything else. Different component parts can interact with eachother, allowing for multitude of possibilities. It is all very neat, with one possible exception. The adventure does not give any hints or suggestions for resolving the scenario. It is possible to free Nicholas and even to save him, but no reward is suggested nor follow up given. A shame. Massive props for the appendix that contains a Lotfp currency to OSR currency converted btw.
Okay. The nitty gritty. The Atheneum of Yearning is rough and unpolished but underneath is a gem. Give it an editor, an art budget and some extra pages so the author can clarify some of the effects and what you have right here is a neat, weird, wholly Lotfp-esque adventure into a weird fucking peter-pan library of make-believe and horror. Give everything some specificity, work on the trappings of the setting, expand some of the descriptions to remove some of the ambiguity and it can easily stand with other works published thus far. As it is, it rocks but it needs work. It is, however, PWYW, so everyone can always check it out and decide what it is worth. The vibe reminds me somewhat of Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess, but content-wise the Atheneum is superior. The essentials are there. I could actually see myself running this. Well done. 7 out of 10. Check it out for yourself.