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.