On the Shoulders of Giants (2018)
Chance Philips (Appolyon Press)
I’ve read a lot of campaign settings for fantasy games as well as a lot of fantasy novels and the one thing that strikes me is that in a medium where you can literally come up with anything you can imagine the bulk still takes place on a world that is more or less like ours, using comprehensible weaponry and antiquated technologies, with inhabitants drawn from or based on old mythology. The full reasons for this are far too many to cover with any degree of accuracy and far beyond the scope of this review but a big reason is that these types of settings are immediately relatable and seem familiar and it is actually really fucking hard to make even those seem believable, let alone a world of utter strangeness where the very rules of reality are different. While this does illustrate the incredible creativity and talent of authors like Roger Zelazny or Greg Egan and the creators of settings like Planescape or Carcosa, it is perhaps also the reason On the Shoulders of Giants is not very good.
On the Shoulders of Giants by Chance Philips with characteristically semi-competent children’s art by Scrap Princess (who did an admittedly kickass job on the Sky Squid and the adult maggot art) is a bizarre 54-page “mini-campaign-setting” taking place on the dead bodies of gods floating in an airless void. BUT PRINCE, I hear you shout oh sociopathic multitudes that slumber within the darkest nether regions of my brain, THAT SOUNDS AN AWFUL LOT LIKE PLANESCAPE. Not so oh Dread Legion From Beyond the Stars, say I, For nowhere was Planescape mentioned in the Inspiration section, Chance Philips came up with that one all by himself!
So in the beginning you had 12 gods, who were the Greek Gods for some reason. They soon grew arrogant and prideful and resentful and thus killed eachother, with the last God (Apollo) being overcome with grief and committing suicide. My first thought was why on earth you would use the Greek Gods when the rest of your setting is meant to be utterly alien and bewildering and my only credible answer is just a lack of creativity. If one wanted to be charitable one could put it down to convenience, since each people has some minor traits of the body that they hail from. Anyway, the gods are dead, and within their corpses burrow maggots, who turns into humans from feeding on the flesh of the divine. Thus the setting.
After the introduction the book opens with 4 new classes for Lotfp to use in this setting (it is unclear if you should still use the old ones, but probably since the campaign mentions these classes are meant for PCs only), the first one of which immediately left a sour taste in my mouth. The Conspirator is a great planner and master of preparation and his unique ability allows him to (among other things) alter dicerolls, which is meant to simulate this sort of planning. My question would be why an OSR game seeks to bastardize a core element of old-school-gaming (preparation and strategy) into a magical ability that may be used several times a day. This reeks of Indie-gaming and I do not like Indie gaming. The class is otherwise unremarkable and its description is so vague it could apply to literally anyone. Rejected.
Two other classes, the Prize-fighter and the Corpse Worker, are introduced. The Corpse Worker is the miner of the On the Shoulders of Giants world, responsible for excavating the Godflesh that is the primary resource in this bizarro setting. They are immensely hardy with d10 hit points but gain only skill points in Architecture and Climbing as they advance in levels. Sort of a tank class. The Prize fighter is another superfluous class and functions as a fighter with d6 hit points, decent saving throws and an immunity to statt loss for the Graft Limb ritual. The start is not terrific, but credit where its due, 4th time does indeed appear to be the charm; The Witch Doctor!
The Witch Doctor class is what the Sorcerer Class needed to be in Carcosa; unsettling, creepy and practicing an utterly novel form of magic. The Witch doctor learns an Experiment every level or so (starting with the unforgivably stupid 0 rituals at level 1, have fun playing a d4 HD character with average saves for one whole level). Experiments are lengthy rituals that combine different materials (sometimes crafted goods, but often the viscera and humors of the gods or pieces of human anatomy) to create certain psychometabolic effects. The first ritual immediately stuck with me since it allowed the Witch Doctor to determine guilt from innocence by chanting for 1 day and fatally striking the accused with a Warhammer. Other fleshcrafting experiments allow for uncertain healing, the summoning of fleshly minions from the fragments of a skull, inscribe someone with mystical scars that leave unhealable wounds but provide a bonus to hit and damage. The Witchdoctor is a lot less potent and if possible even more random then the Wizard and dice being what they are I don’t see them surviving many adventures but it’s a fun and open-ended class that can be fine-tuned or expanded upon as the GM desires, which is the most important thing.
Equipment section is altered to reflect the comparative rarity of metals in this world (or rather, the comparative rarity of great concentrations of metals), which can only be distilled from the rock-hard flesh of the dead gods by the human maggots that inhabit them. A suit of chainmail is worth 1000 iron pieces for example (which take the place of Silver pieces), while the currency appears to be set at a pound of Godflesh for 1 ip. The comparatively high cost of normally ubiquitous resources like arrows or simple tools is actually a very intriguing setting concept and is not in itself poorly handled. The purposes and use of things like divine Ichor or Godflesh beyond the rituals of Witchdoctors are described later in the book, which is irritating.
The primary source of nourishment in OtSoG is jerky drawn from the maggots that is the infant form of humanity in the setting (with most humans being maggot farmers), who originate spontaneously within the vast bodies of their dead gods. If bereft of this nourishment, one can feed on the flesh of gods (the primary foodsource of maggots), but eating it requires a saving throw vs poison or the character will take 1 point of damage. Eating too much God Flesh turns one into a sort of bloodthirsty ghoul until weaned off it, which is a missed fucking opportunity if you ask me. You see, Maggots that devour a sufficient amount of godflesh turn into humans, so eating too much Godflesh should turn you into a sort of inhuman monstrosity with quasi-divine powers, subtly hinting at the titanic immensity and incomprehensible power of the dead gods, instead you just turn into a flesh-eating ghoul. Okay.
So anyway, what the fuck do you actually do on the Bodies? Everyone is always mining for more Blood, Bone and Flesh, and access to the Organs represents a sort of motherload. Presumably the party could therefore explore the gristly caverns and capillaries of the Body, but yet another opportunity is missed by having EVERY body be inhabited by humans, with general characteristics vaguely resembling those of the God bodies they inhabit. There is a dearth of hooks, and boy oh boy does this setting need hooks. For that matter, another opportunity is missed by not giving each different God Body different geography and maybe some landmarks that can be turned into hooks. There are 12 gods now but there might as well be 2 for all the fucking difference it will make.
OtSoG has few monsters listed and none of them are really interesting. Within the Stomach of each deity still live the Demons (since there is no hell they live in a place of acid), which must travel to the surface in bizarre environment suits and attempt to make deals with humankind, but since the demons are of a purely secular nature and there is no hell, the concept is diluted until it becomes meaningless. The demons seek to enslave people with contracts by offering material goods and if you break the contract…they beat you up and drag you into the stomach. So there is no sorcery to enforce their pacts and they are comparatively rare you say? Weak.
The other monsters are as nonsensical as the demon. A spider thing that if killed leaves a colour that is unknown anywhere on the body and drains phlegm from humans is all well and good but this thing needed a few core antagonist monsters. Some sort of presence that competes with people. One or two dangerous alien predators ah la the Nightland that the PCs can either hunt or run away from. Instead we get demons, a sky squid and the most boring ghouls ever. Did the writer just not give enough of a damn?
I said 54 pages, but there is a lot of art, coupled with some pages being mostly taken up by GIANT LETTERS that repeat a single sentence on the previous page but the writing is too weak so the GIANT LETTERS do not give you the sort of instant thematic flu-shot or intriguing point that better writing would have given you. It is placed there solely to be artsy fartsy, and boy oh boy is this shit artsy fartsy. This is exactly the sort of thing I have dreaded ever since Zak S and Patrick Stewart entered the OSR arena, and now it has arrived and you can see what a less talented person with the same mindset achieves; Childish drawings, huge margins, weird for the sake of being weird and nary a thought devoted to actual playability.
OtSoG insultingly provides not even an adventure but the barest hint of an outline in the back, and here is where I am going to definitively call its bluff and say I find it damn unlikely even the creators ever played it. The concept is not bad (the Grey Pools are areas where the god skull is broken and one can access the rotting Grey matter of the Gods), but all we get is a series of grotesque mutations in case you fuck with the matter (these are not poorly done) and some NPCs: Hideous mutant servitors of the pools (good) and a level 4 Corpse Worker OH WAIT I THOUGHT NPCS COULDNT BE CORPSE WORKERS and his generic henchmen. This one is akward. The weirdest fucking setting ever made with the most outlandish primal art and the NPCs feel generic as fuck. Look at this shit:
Quillion is a mercenary, disillusioned by many years working in the mines.
Around fifty years old, he has a gray beard that masks a long, jagged scar
running down his cheekbone and piercing white-blue eyes. He always carries
a heavy pickaxe, almost blunt from years of constant use, and wears maggot
leather armor. If confronted, he will casually move his pickaxe just so slightly
closer to the person confronting him and jut his chin out
Quillion is a level 4 Corpse Worker who grew tired of the constant work
and—after hearing rumors about the Gray Pools—formed a group of
mercenaries, convicts, and ne’er-do-wells to try to control them and monitor
Great motivation and description faggot, was LIKES LOOT AND HATES GOOD already taken? So few pages to evoke this terrific setting and THIS is the best you can do?
This stat block represents a generic thug in Quillion’s gang of mercenaries. These thugs almost always wear thick, heavy clothing to deflect blows and carry a greatsword strapped to their back. Although a formidable threat in large groups, an individual thug will run away from a situation rather than actually face it. The Referee can also use this stat block to represent any other thugs on the Twelve Bodies.
Jutting chins, pickaxes and generic thugs. Some serviceable but uninspired hooks (the concept is weird but they should work) are also provided.
After providing us with some halfway decent organic random monster generation tables (with a few flavourful nuggets like the Mysterious ability which means characters lose all memory of fighting the monster after it has been destroyed) that were absolutely required to keep this thing on lifesupport so well done I guess Chance figures after all that great setting content we can’t do without A FUCKING MAGGOT FARMER NPC CLASS THAT IS JUST D6 HIT DICE AND SOME SAVES. WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING? DO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY? DO YOU THINK THIS IS A JOKE?
As a brief aside, while I am not a Scrapprincess art fan and I find the accusation that most of his art is childlike and crude to be accurate, the art in OtCoG is an improvement on that of earlier works like Fire on the Velvet Horizon. While some of the art is still ugly, the human-maggots and the Squid are strikingly well done, a sure sign that sufficient practice can indeed make perfect.
To summarize, with the exception of a halfway decent if kooky class and some interesting imagery, OtSoG is too underdeveloped to function as a campaign setting and fails to provide enough intriguing nuggets to catalyse further expansion by the GM. What is left is a grotesquery, a circus-freak collection of separate ideas that could theoretically be cobbled together to form a brief and dysfunctional campaign, but so much of the creative work will have to be done by the GM that it is simply not worth it. Contrast this with something like Towers of Krshal, which is sparse also, but which provides enough delightfully tantalizing nuggets so the mind can’t help but fill in the blank space with wonder and excitement.
This thing either needed to be longer or it needed to focus on providing more hooks, landmarks, differentiating the different godbodies and gosh darn it putting an actual sample dungeon in the back. I am not against weird settings with sparse detail, I liked Into the Odd because every little detail it gave provoked a further question and formed a coherent whole in the GM’s mind. On the Shoulders of Giants barely gives you enough to work with and fails to capitalize on the weirdness of its premise.
I actually tried applying Jeff Rient’s Twenty Questions to this motherfucker and found I could answer about two of them (divine organs sort of count as legendary lost treasure, and the stuff to eat would be godflesh and maggot jerky). I am not saying Rient’s 20 questions is some sort of be-all and end-all of campaign setting tests but the questions are so practical and related to actual play that I find it easy to illustrate a point with them.
Points for future improvement:
– Don’t spend a third of your weird campaign setting book detailing new classes
– If you are going to introduce a new class, make sure it is distinct from other classes (i.e fuck the pit fighter and the Corpse Worker)
– If you are going to do weird gonzo, don’t pick the most obvious pantheon in existence for no reason
– Every 1st level class needs SOMETHING. Even the B/X cleric had turn undead on 1st level.
– Make at least 10 new monsters if you are going to do a bizarre gonzo setting
– If you don’t have time or space to flesh out the setting, give us 20 one-page adventure hooks to show everyone how you envision it to be played
– Get a better idea and better writing
– Differentiate the fucking god bodies from eachother, add a mystery (whatever happened to the 13th god?), a location SOMETHING.
Whoever paid money for this kickstarter is a big dummy. On the Shoulders of Giants is going to be played by no one, forgotten within two months and adds only embarrassment and shame to anyone’s collection of RPGs. Useless. You disgust me. 2 out of 10.
Update: There is a time for murder and a time for healing. Here are some hooks the game could have provided that I came up with while cycling.
– A deranged witch doctor is looking for members to form an expedition into the Choleric Deeps, rumored to lead all the way to the very Heart of Zeus.
– Omnivorax the Warlord is conquering all of Demeter with his rampaging horde. Feasters on the flesh of gods and burners of men, it is rumoured Omnivorax is actually a homonculus created by N’kallu, Witchdoctor Master of the Dancing Hut!
– In the void is said to float a splinter of purest Godmetal, shard of one of the incomprehensible weapons of the Gods. The mysterious raiders in suits of metal are said to come from within this cold place.
– Other parasites then maggots can be found deep within the bodies of the extinct Gods. Hateful, incomprehensible, monstrously cruel, they lay eggs in the bodies of maggots to form more of their loathsome brood. Whatever great Labour they perform out of the sight of men, it will not bode well for men.
– Whatever strange humor or substance Xoidides found to make him the greatest pit fighter in all the twelve bodies is starting to wear off. He is looking for brave men to follow him back to the place where it all began. Only asking around reveals that the last time, 30 years prior, 12 men accompanied him, and only he came back.
– The skull of Zeus has a fault, an ancient injury that never healed. Whoever this strange prophet is that is sending his mutated followers to the cities to preach his doctrine of obliteration and death speaks with the voice of the God himself!