[Review] Scenic Dunnsmouth (Lotfp); How long has it been?

[Adventure]
Scenic  Dunnsmouth (2014)
Zzarchov Kowolski (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels 2 – 5

Long before I forgot the warmth of the noonday sun or the refreshing coolness of the evening breeze, I forgot my name. Call me what you will. I am the Rogue.
– Rogue Instruction manual, 1980

Back from a kickass weekend in Heidelberg, Germany, still reeling from apocalyptic quantities of Steinberg, Alexander Marcus and the dankest, most picaresque fucking castle scenery you will see outside of a Dark Souls marathon, I have just enough time to put my thoughts on Scenic Dunnsmouth, a bizarre and overall very interesting adventure by the maverick wild-card of the Lotfp label, Zzarchov Kowolski. Part Deliverance, Part Lovecraft, Part Texas Chainsaw massacre and Part Twilight Zone, Scenic Dunnsmouth comes powersliding out of the gate and doesn’t stop until it passes the moon and reaches for the fucking stars.

For this sublime outing Kowolski teams up with superb rpg artist Jez Gordon, of Death Frost Doom fame, to deliver a gloomy, quixotic and at times irreverently meta village adventure for the players to poke and prod, discover weird shit and probably die repeatedly in. The postmodernist ironic detachment is in full force with Scenic Dunnsmouth yet never comes across as insecure and alongside the veritable legion of references to everything from Lovecraft to fucking timecube.com Scenic Dunnsmouth manages to pull off an adventure of remarkable depth alongside some pretty stunning atmosphere and set pieces. Gordon’s illustrations perfectly compliment Kowolski’s writing.

Fuck me where do I even begin with this one? Dunnsmouth is a village in the middle of a swamp by the sea, forlorn, degenerate, insular anachronistic and but a shadow of its former glory. In the vicinity of the village can be found the Timecube, an artifact of such potency it warps time around it. Further complicating matters is the possible presence of a hideous Spider Cult, the Gypsy witch Magda, the murderous and terrifying cannibal hermit Uncle Ivanovik and the mad priest Father Iwanopoulos.

Why the fuck would the players visit this ass end of nowhere? The hooks are pretty strong. The village has a lot of outstanding taxes and the players can buy the rights to collect the due 12.000 sp for a mere 500 sp since the local lord doesn’t think it worth the hassle. If that won’t do, rumors of either magical shit or a vanquished evil power connected with the village might draw in the more power-hungry or heroically motivated PCs.

There are no wandering encounter tables but the adventure does a good job of setting up just how remote Dunnsmouth really is. No harbour but passing ships will occasionally trade fish with local fishermen, nigh impassible mountains followed by swamp-land all around etc. etc.

The village is randomly generated. What that means is that though you roll a bunch of dice and draw a bunch of cards before you begin. Wherever the dice land on the map you place the houses, time cube, significant Npcs, possible special structures and a church. Within that single dice throw/card draw you also learn which villagers are infected by the Spider Cult (if any), the power of said NPCs and essentially everything you need to know. It felt gimmicky at first but its pretty elegant and the large cast of possible characters and great variety in locations ensures that the village will be very different between playthroughs. At first I thought, why the fuck would you not just make the adventure as good as you can and use ALL of that good content, but then I understood; The VERY IDEA of Dunnsmouth is that it will be explored multiple times by the same players, possibly even the same characters, with the random nature of the threats ensuring that previous familiarity will only heighten the sense of dreadful anticipation and catch players off guard by mixing it up. This mechanism is explained in game by the presence of the reality-warping Time Cube, tying everything together in a neat little bow of mechanics and fluff. What I at first thought gimmicky is in actuality a very well crafted mechanism of subtle complexity. The procedure for generating the village is efficient and involves a single roll of the dice, all of which should be available to any OSR gaming group, with the possible exception of a second D12 [1].

Consider the major antagonist of the players. The dreaded Spider Cult is a lovecraftian terror whose lifecycle is eerily reminiscent of the Genestealer cults [2] of Warhammer 40k. At the centre of the cult is the original spider, initially similar to any large spider, but growing larger and more menacing over time. Anyone who is bitten by the spider is charmed (no save under 3rd level) into regarding the spider as close family and becomes willing to do anything to protect it. This corruption goes down all the way to the genetic level meaning the infected will give birth to hideous human/spider hybrids and eventually, thousands of tiny new Spiders that can propagate their own cults to start the cycle anew. The genius of the adventure is that ANYONE can be infected but there is often no way to detect who is or is not part of the spider cult until a move is made. Infected villagers might be hiding some hideously deformed offspring, or their wife might be pregnant with a shitload of spiders. The location and even the strength of the Original Spider is random. It might be tiny and hiding somewhere or it might be lumbering and dreadful, squatting in a tent in the centre of the village. There is even a possibility that there is no spider cult at all when the village is generated.

The second major and terrifying antagonist is uncle Ivanovik; a fucked up cannibal hermit of protean motivation who is given different tactics depending on the dice result. No matter the composition of the village, Ivanovik will always be there, but his methods and abilities will change. Gordon’s art brings the character to life. A fucked up cannibal hermit of protean motivation who is given different tactics depending on the dice result. The frequent use of ambushes, traps, dogs, poison or other trickery means that even if the players know Uncle Ivanovik is there, they won’t necessarily know what to expect, which only adds to the anticipation.

A major strength of this module is its cast of yokels. Kowolski populates Dunnsmouth with a random selection of NPCs of 4 families. The Dunncasters are kind but poor, the Samsons are inbred hillbillies straight out of Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw massacre for that matter, the Dunlops are snooty rich bastards and the Van Kaus represent a sort of vaguely militant amish. Each family is represented by a suite of cards and has about 14 households. I love them. Kowolski really manages to convey the sort of backward, degenerate parochialism that brings Dunnsmouth to life. A couple are always passive-aggressively arguing, a fat guy and a slim guy live together in a ramshackle cabin and the thin guy is always covered in bruises, Billy Sue is the village bicycle etc. etc.  Yet Kowolski doesn’t bury you with mundanity either. There are enough secrets to discover even if no one is infected with the creepy spider cult. These secrets are often dependent on certain random phenomena occurring so there will always be something to discover even if the PCs visit Dunnsmouth multiple times, and why wouldn’t they?

If the villagers are a member of the spider cult they often have some hideously mutated offspring tucked away somewhere, sometimes where the dumb ass PCs can stumble upon them and be fucking terrified as shit.

Kowolski is cleverly tying an ancient evil long dormant to the Von Kaus family so as to enable you to use Dunnsmouth as both a goal and a waypost, thereby allowing for multiple playthroughs to occur. The evil lurking in the mountains is not defined, though the adventure gives you two possibilities (an apocalyptic Sun cult and an evil Faerie Queen worshipping cult). Hell, if you are a smart guy, you place Dunnsmouth as the last outpost before reaching Death Frost Doom [3].

And while I am fucking at it, let’s give Kowolski some fucking credit. The guy has delivered nothing but solid location based modules so far with not even the slightest hint of railroading while managing to give it all a unique spin. How does he fucking do it? How do you come up with Ideas like Thulian Echoes, yet somehow manage to avoid coming off like a pretentious navalgazing tossfiddler? And now this shit. A module that actually gets MORE exciting as you play through it more then once.

What the fuck else? The Weirdness! Did I mention the Weirdness? Dunnsmouth does not only have hideous bodily horror lurking menacingly behind a facade of poverty, inbreeding and parochialism, it also has BAT SHIT WEIRDNESS of the finest kind. It exemplifies what Lotfp weird is trying to do but often fails at. A bizarre time-warping artifact based on a piece of internet culture. Creepy celtic burrows and Fae that act like their mythological pre-Tolkinian antecedents i.e unpredictable, whimsical and deadly. Time-themed sorceries to summon Father Time, a dimetrodon (awesome!), or bind the fragmented shards of the human spirit back into its earthen shell! There is JUST enough sorcery in the adventure but finding it is unlikely and it will probably FUCK YOU UP if you mess with it, entirely in keeping with the theme of the adventure.

If I must level any criticism at this thing, the map didn’t really make any sense to me, the dice-generation on a gridmap throwing method is goofy as fuck and it was unclear how to apply any sort of scale to it or where to put the water although a very helpful step by step explanation is given in the back of the book. Also, for some reason the Two of Clubs has no additional description for when he is part of the Spider cult, which is a bizarre omission.

You want more bitching? The super awesome random events are all very unlikely to take place even over multiple playthroughs which means the bulk of the players will never get to see them until the GM decides to throw up his hands and just run the village as he fucking well wishes in a giant, autistic elfgame showdown of biblical proportions. Super awesome treasure? What are the chances of getting a straight flush out of 8-12 cards in a full deck? Those great Uncle Ivanov encounters in the special locations? Those mean he must be in the special location so the dice must be in a very specific place at a very specific time. How many playthroughs does Kowolski expect we are willing to give this thing?

Pros: A village adventure with TONNES and TONNES of NPCs, most of them at least passable and some of them very memorable. Terrific body horror, replayability and weird from the autistic Keanu Reaves of Lotfp himself, great Zzarchov. In the meantime, truly a wonderful place to explore and get utterly fucking murdered by. About as close to a tabletop Roguelike as the OSR has gotten and that is fucking saying something.

Cons: Long ass prep-time. Some of the best content will probably never see play if you run it as randomly as you are expected to do.

Listen, fuck the bitching, fuck the whining. This thing is probably fun enough to play at least thrice if not make it a recurring feature of your Lotfp campaign. Suck up the time you need to learn how to play all the weird yokel PCs, get some good ad-hoc GMing skills because GODDAMN you will need them since the cult cannot by nature follow a fixed plan and try to convey THE ATMOSPHERE of Scenic Dunnsmouth. Secluded, decaying, warping, rotting, corrupted Dunnsmouth. This thing gives you a lot to work with but expects you to know your shit as a GM. For once, I don’t think that’s lazy since it puts in all this effort. A very worthy effort by Kowolski that does something innovative without being a pretentious tosser about it. It’s good to see the OSR can do something else then clones or homages. Don’t tell mom. 8.5 out of 10

[1] That is too say, if your GM is literally Scrooge McDuck and you possess only the minimum amount of dice required to play the game.
[2] http://warhammer40k.wikia.com/wiki/Genestealer_Cult
[3] The premise of which fits well, some might say suspiciously well, with the vaguely described menace tied to the Van Kaus family, not to mention Gordon did the art for Death Frost Doom revised as well. Admittedly, the premise will require minor modification, as the sanctum of the Du’vanku is very much NOT breached before the players get there*.

* = A quick look at Death Frost Doom and the name of Ezekiel Duncaster quickly pops up, all but cementing the deliberate connection between the two modules.

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