[Review] Broodmother Skyfortress (Lotfp); Laws Control the Lesser man, Right Conduct controls the Great one.

[Adventure/Self-help book]
Broodmother Sky-fortress (2016)

Jeff Rients (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Level JEFF RIENTS GIVES ZERO FUCKS (but anything around 3-7 seems legit, Lvl 1’s only for the most hairy-chested of murderhobos)

Hot damn what a time to be alive. The elfgames flow richly like wine, winter is ending, I am gradually but inexorably gaining strength from the stolen energies of sun-spots like the tides wearing down the continent of Atlantis and fuck me I feel good. What better way to celebrate then with a delicious elfgame, arguably one of the finest that ever came out of the weird Shub-niggurath-esque spawning pool equal parts awesome and terrible but always interesting that is Lotfp?

Case in point, Broodmother Skyfortress Motherfucking rocks and it knows it. You could kind of tell from the get-go even though it was delayed in yet another ill-conceived kickstarter escapade that it was probably going to work.  Jeff Rients is well-known and even somewhat Renowned for being an OSR OG, with many an insightful column on the virtues of oldschool gaming, as well as a pernicious random table spammer. This work reflects his elfgames-is-not-serious-business attitude, as well as his undeniable grasp of what makes them fun. In addition, while the execrable Blood in the Chocolate won a Gold Ennie if only to showcase that the award is a corrupt mess, decided entirely by popularity contest, poor BS only got a Judges Selection. Fucking bullshit since it is the best thing Lotfp has ever produced.

Production value and layout alone should have gotten it an Ennie. The entire work is gorgeously illustrated by the talented Ian Maclean to look like a Silver Age Kirby comic book, radiating an infectious sort of enthusiasm. Everything about Broodmother screams energy, fun and a labor of love. There is no cynicism here (Blood in the Chocolate take note).

Broodmother Skyfortress really consists two parts. The first part is an adventure. This is the first example I have seen of the Event-based adventure, a format that is created to be throw into the GM’s campaign (and indeed, works best if it is thrown into a homecampaign) with a set of guidelines to allow the GM to moderate the more freeform play that typifies (and is best in life) your average home campaign. This format shows up here in there in tiny parts of other adventures but it just comes off as being lazy. Here the approach is so consistent as to be genuinely, actually helpful, and Rient’s veteran GMing skills help one to cushion any anxiety one might have at doing some of the heavy lifting oneself. The entire tone of the book is not that of a dictatorial schoolmaster, but more that of a mischievous wise old mentor guiding your through the process of having fun, tongue in cheek.

Rient’s philosophy on modules informs the entire work and is in direct contrast to that of the Supreme Edgelord Raggi IV. Raggs states that you should run modules as written as much as possible since it will be a change from your usual GMing style and thus your players will be caught of guard, whereas Rients states that any module will always have to be adjusted to fit the GM’s homecampaign and thus there is no such thing as the pure module (and the argument of a good GM can save a shit module but the reverse is not true). Regardless, Broodmother is almost pathologically customizable, and Rients never ceases to offer advice on how to make things just that little bit more awesome.

But I get ahead of myself. The central premise is that the campaign world is attacked by giants that look like Elephant-centaurs with Shark-heads ineptly piloting a Kirby-style New Gods flying cloud-castle complete with Clarketech, obelisks and degenerate morlocks to maintain it. What other story do you need? Rient’s asks YOU, the GM, to sacrifice something by having the Giants attack and possibly destroy some of the big cities you have lovingly crafted and cause some serious campaign disruption while you are at it. That’s right bitch! This is a campaign-breaker!

What sets it apart from other (((advice)))  based modules is the attention to consequence. Rients asks you to consider what parts of the settlement could or could not withstand Giant Attack, if there would be survivors, what treasures would be stolen etc. etc. The Giants attack at night so there is an element of mystery to the events. The floating fortress begins in a single point and moves in the direction of the wind towards the nearest relevant settlement. Even the speed at which news travels is considered.

The rumors they learn from panicked survivors are well done because they give only an inkling of the nature of the threat because it is viewed through the lens of a medieval peasant who does not know what elephants or sharks are. Thus the players will get reports of anchors tearing up tall buildings, find giant footprints, man-eating elephants, sailing ships crashing into a cloud etc. etc. it’s all jumbled.

Where it gets interesting is that reaching the Star Fortress is left to the player to figure out. Rients offers only a basic chance of success for any crazy plan, but the illustration offers several hilarious (and probable) suggestions. In a campaign world without omnipresent flying magic, reaching a flying place is fucking tough.

Incentive is handled, again, like advice, and it is advice that could be applicable to any adventure, which is the case with many of Rients’s advice, which is what makes this product such a delight to read. The existence of the Quarterback, that one player that is always up for doing interesting things is handled well, as well as incentives to motivate the more desultory, lethargic player that is a common stereotype among the disgusting nerds YOU cohabit with. As a last feature of the introductory section, methods to quickly generate a campaign setting with a minimum of research and leg work and described, in case you want to use BS and do not already have an existing campaign setting.

The Giants themselves, the main antagonists of the adventure, are surprisingly diverse, a wonderful decision since there are only six of them. Each has a specific (albeit it oafish) personality, role and abilities; One wields a giant-sized magic sword, one fights with anchors and pilots the Skyfortress, one is constantly sick, one receives prophetic visions etc. They even have a sort of ersatz queen and an table for how they interact with eachother when they are encountered together.
There is the opportunity for a sort of faction play, albeit it of an appropriately stupid and brutal kind. The essential thuggishness of the Giants is emphasized in both their abilities and their personality. The game gives you the option (which you should take) of using special rules for the giants, giving them no AC (all attacks hit) but a damage reduction of 5/- (in Lotfp that is a huge deal). Along with attacks that deal 2d6 at minimum, they are opponents meant to be defeated by guile rather then by brute force.

What is further appreciated is that you are given the option of fully customizing the adventure to your campaign. The nature of the Giants, be they alien, supernatural, freak of nature or science experiment gone awry is discussed, going beyond simple mechanical alterations and into tips to RUNNING the adventure and portrayal of the Giants in terms of atmosphere to make it more awesome. The Skyfortress itself can be re-interpreted as well, from literally being constructed by Titans or the Gods (one particularly cool option I found was to make these Titans the deities you used in a previous campaign), Kirby Style New Gods or a band of Angels that sided with neither Lucifer nor God during the War in Heaven. The customizable nature of the Wretches (i.e do they have a beautiful princess that you can marry?), which is handled via a handy checklist, is also very much appreciated.

There is a thoroughness to the adventure that ties into its open-ended nature. A lazy adventure would just have you encounter Kofi Anan the Devourer in the town of Neo-Alfen-York 17 but fuck you, what if the PCs miss the boat? Instead you get a detailed random encounter table to determine where each giant is, both in the fortress and during a raid, a way to determine their motion each turn and a series of wandering monsters and events both inside and outside the dome to facilitate the illusion of a living breathing space.

The map itself lends itself to nonlinear exploration and the network of tunnels below the fortress is quite expansive, even going so far as to extend off the map in multiple directions. Rients succeeds in giving the place the feel of a silver-age floating fortress of wonders, subverting common dungeoncrawling tropes but maintaining a dungeon crawling feel and structure nevertheless. Museums of bizarre animals, the armored husk of an ancient Titan in its throne (yes he can be restored, prompting a frentic flight as he tears down the fortress with godlike fury), golden obelisks with gemstone buttons (dare you pilfer them?) and so on. The fortress can be INTERACTED with. As a wholly separate antagonist, the severed head of the Sky King with his disembodied Psychic Brain within, spawning the psychic horrors of the Malevolences and giving us some of the grooviest visions ever if it or the Malevolences are directly contacted:

Six hundred and sixty-six quasar galaxies rotate so that their polar emission jets converge onto a single point in space, opening a parsecs-wide gate to Hell and releasing a trillion demons upon an unsuspecting universe.

There are twenty entries and they are all like this. Kickass.

Treasure? Unsurprisingly, the treasure is unique, distributed in a non-obvious fashion so as to reward exploration and runs the gamut from crystal skulls, giant-sized enchanted rings that may be worn as bracelets, Giant appleseeds and the electrum claws of the katana-ape. There are multiple opportunities for the GM to tie the adventure to other adventures by means of a treasure map, a technique that I have seen often in OSR stuff and that I approve of. In short, it is almost perfect in capturing what oldschool treasure SHOULD be like, with all the tedium of 5 gp, 33 sp, 7 cp in a sack that serves verisimilitude but is a bane to that other pillar of oldskool gaming, elegance. Nothing is watered down in Broodmother Skyfortress, it is a big, imaginative, rollicking silver age funcoaster that captures what the fun side of Oldschool shit is all about.

Part Two of BMSF consists of a series of most celebrated posts from Rient’s blog which seems separate from the first part but they actually form a coherent whole. Rients espouses a philosophy of oldschool gaming by example, and it is glorious.

The posts themselves are all great stuff, from d100 tables with adventuring motivations (i.e actually fucking useful tables, a rarity in the OSR),  useful carousing rules (not unlike the ones that were seen in Kutalik’s Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and just as tasty), a simple but robust table for altering your megadungeon in between sorties so it feels more like a living, breathing place, a GREAT primer on essential elements within a campaign world that will actually SEE USE! Like a neckbearded greek philosopher, Rients goodnaturedly belabors us to look at our own GMing style, to forsake hubris and to focus on that which is essential. If there is a single thread that runs through this magnificent collection it is just that: humility. From optional rules for granting XP for reaching interesting destinations as an incentive, Rient’s approach is always directed towards generating a maximum amount of fun for your players.

The final section deserves mention for treating spellbooks more like Call of Cthulhu Grimoires filled with blasphemous truths that shake the foundations of the world then yet another inventory tab-bar that is rarely given the merit or consideration it truly deserves and providing an excessive amount of examples, easily enough to equip a pseudo-historical campaign setting’s worth of wizards.

Pros: A terrific silver-age fantasy romp that is simultaneously a how-to-guide on OSR Gaming with a wink and a stick of dynamite. Treasures, monsters and premise are all new. CAN actually be adapted to any campaign setting. Great essays.

Cons: Theoretically you can read the posts on Jeffs blog so anyone familiar with his writings and opinions might not gain much value from the articles but you could do a lot worse. The focus on accessibility and ease-of-use might be off-putting to more experienced GMs.

The hard part of being a critic is to find fault in subjects you enjoy and to do so here was particularly difficult because nothing in this thing stood out to me as glaring, obvious, boring or trite. The adventure is stylistically unique, well-crafted, eminently game-able and open-ended, remains true to the precepts of oldskool gaming without slavishly copying its flaws and I found myself agreeing with everything the columns stated ever. All the random tables (Rients is a notorious random table spammer), were actually useful and never gave the awkward impression that they were there simply because this was an OSR product. It also avoids entirely the Vornheim problem of having 30% of the book feel like filler. By far the best thing Lamentations of the Flame Princess has produced. 9 out of 10.

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10 thoughts on “[Review] Broodmother Skyfortress (Lotfp); Laws Control the Lesser man, Right Conduct controls the Great one.

  1. Way too close to Erikson’s/Esslemont’s K’Chain Che’Malle broodmother/skyfortress concept (shark-elephants instead of bipedal dinosaurs). After a massive edit it would contain 10-20 pages of relevant, somewhat-interesting material.

    Next…

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    1. Not so fast there buddy! While I appreciate a good fantasy reference (I chose Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series as my fantasy-doorstopper novel of choice but I’ll get to Erikson/Esslemont’s ten thousand page magnum opus in time) the correspondence here is probably of a coincidental nature. You could probably draw similar comparisons with Forgotten Realms Netheril or something. The primary source of inspiration is far more likely to be 60s-70s era DC/Marvel, which has a plethora of floating fortresses and other imaginary shit.

      The essays are solid, practical advice on running and designing campaigns with the focus centered around what actually comes up in play. What did you find lacking?

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      1. Pretty sure Erikson called his K’Chain matrons “broodmothers” several times, while referencing their sky castles as “sky fortresses.” I’m not claiming that Rients ripped the idea off him, only the terminology. In fact, there’s a Dungeon adventure that has giants in a cloud castle terrorizing the countryside (I’m sure there are several versions of such floating around.) If he’s ripping ideas, thats where it came from.

        Elephantine land-sharks…he literally made them shark-elephants.

        The module’s intended audience is a new-to-the-OSR GM who has never seen Conan the Barbarian and doesn’t have a campaign going. Half of the skyfortress material seems dull (on cursory inspection). Some interesting Rients-tables provided. Giants that Rients admits are just reskinned. I think my 10-20 page assessment rings true, especially when you consider that it uses size 16 font.

        Great packaging, but little use for a veteran GM. Probably made Rients and Raggi a bunch of money.

        So…I’d recommend that you indicate in your reviews what modules’ target audiences are.

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      2. [Erikson]

        That sounds credible as a source of inspiration. I haven’t read Erikson or Esslemont yet so I can’t estimate to what degree Rients was inspired by the concept. While we are on the subject, I have some Erikson and Esslemont on my shelf (2nd hand book sale). How much Erikson do you have to read before you can get into Night of Long Knives (which I assume requires some context on the Malazan empire to enjoy it to the fullest)?

        [Cloud castle]

        As a module, sure, I’d have to check with Bryce since he seems to be the resident Dungeon afficianado but that sounds about right. I’m more interested in HOW he handled the module, which is not an approach that I have seen before (or if I did, I can’t recall it).

        [Intended audience]

        This I agree with partially. Broodmother Skyfortress is very much geared towards beginners, since veteran GM’s have the necessary know how and familiarity to deal with many of the potential obstacles created by such a relatively free-form and open-ended scenario anyway. As I mentioned, the adventure itself is simultaneously an expression of Rient’s philosophy on gaming, a step by step how to guide on how to make such a module and an interesting module in its own right. It stands to reason Veteran GM’s will gain less use from advice and how-to’s since by definition they can do that already (or they have incriminating evidence on their players or bomb collars or something).

        That being said, the adventure has no fixed location and one of the triggers is a significant location in the GM’s presumed home campaign, otherwise the destruction is less dramatically satisfying. I’d put the target audience for this one at beginner-low intermediate but this module is among the easiest to just dump into one’s home campaign (provided the tone doesn’t clash too much, I don’t see anyone throwing this one into a Ravenloft or dark fantasy campaign).

        [Reskinning]

        That I liked because it provided a selection of options to facilitate re-skinning, the reskinning made a mechanical difference and the very purpose was to put it in a homecampaign. It’s hard to comment on what you find interesting since I don’t know your taste (though I am guessing some old Gygaxian modules would very much be on the menu).

        [10-20]

        Between Giant font and art, if you strip away all the beginner-friendly formatting, explanations, bullet point checklists and treat the second half of the book as already known or irrelevant, I’d say you could condense the adventure to that amount in a worddoc.

        [Target audience]

        While I could argue (convincingly) that it is implied in the text, I’ll point it out more explicitly next time. The problem with doing it in every review is that in most cases the reader himself should be able to infer from the text whether or not he is the target audience. I am considering adding some sort of difficulty curve based on the amount of assumed knowledge of the GM (with something like Tower of the Stargazer being for beginners and I guess something like Many Gates of the Gann being on the other end of the spectrum) as soon as I figure out what would constitute such classes (though introductory is self-explanatory obviously).

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  2. Esslemont’s books are rubbish, and I wouldn’t waste time or money on them. He and Erikson agreed to divvy up their GURPS campaign world/events before Erikson began writing his fantasy novels. While Erikson is a solid 7-8 on a 10 point scale in terms of writing, Esslemont is a 3-4.

    The Night of Knives is an event that opens Gardens of the Moon, with the reader completely clueless as to what is going on. Suffice it to say that one would have to read most of the 10 books to get a full take on all the issues surrounding that one, pivotal night. It would only be worth reading to a person who has read all of Erikson’s novels, yet wants to know more about their world’s history.

    If you’re actually going to read Erikson, I’d start with either Gardens of the Moon or Deadhouse Gates. If you can get past the modern-seeming nicknames that his characters are given you’ll find those two interesting. If you don’t like those two books, then don’t bother with the rest of the series. I found the charaters’ sobriquets offputting, but bore with them long enough to appreciate how they are given when it was explained (more than half way through the sries).

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  3. I have no idea who Erikson or Esslemont are, but I presume they are fantasy novelists? I don’t read much fantasy written after Tolkien and Howard. The comment that 60’s-70’s Marvel comics are to blame is on the nose, as I am pretty obsessed with Jack Kirby, especially his work after returning to Marvel from his stint with DC. Also the adventure was written in response to G1-2-3 Against the Giants and the more obscure Judges Guild module Under the Storm Giant’s Castle. The Skyfortress is basically a ruined Supertown from Kirby’s Fourth World mashed up with the latter adventure. The Broodmother concept was inspired by the Slurm Queen in Futurama more than anything else. I cannot pin down an origin for the shark-elephant hybrids. That may be original, but I doubt it.

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    1. Hey Jeff.

      Thanks for clearing that up. Kirby’s New Gods stuff was damn fine superscience heroism, a pity the original run didn’t conclude properly. I know giants but I’ve never heard of the JG module, I’ll have to check it out.

      If we want to nerd out, I guess the Slurm Queen itself can be traced back to the Alien Queen, which can be traced back to the Ant Queen in Them! It’s what you do with your source material that counts, and you did a damn fine job.

      I heard you did another Lotfp thing with Serpents. Curious to check it out, seems different from your usual style.

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