The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia (2016)
Ahi Kerp & Wind Lothamer (Knight Owl Games)
For Lotfp (sort of)
(fucking jetlag goddammnit)
Back from yet another foray into sun-scorched, coffee-shop haunted Toronto, I return with my weary heart, a well-rested body, a mind-aflame with zeal and elfgames and several new additions to my overflowing library of fantasy literature that I will now briefly rabble on about because it says AND ASSOCIATED PARAPHERNALIA on my banner. Scroll down to get to the review.
Coming in first, my delve into Appendix N continues with rereading Swords against Wizardry, Leiber’s 4th collection of tales of fantasy heroism by loveable adventuring archetypes Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser which contains the excellent tales “Stardock” and “Lords of Quarmall.” While neither has replaced “The Swords of Lankhmar” as my favorite Leiber story evar, both are among the strongest stories in the adventures of Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser and their escapades in the employ of the degenerate sorcerer-lords of Quarmall was particularly thrilling.
I was also thrilled to finally pick up the Metal Monster by Abraham Meritt (who I have gained an immense appreciation for the more I read) and features a recurring character from his brilliant science fantasy romp ‘The Moon Pool.’
While I enjoyed the work and was awed by some of its stunningly beautiful imagery as well as the raw power of imagination at work, I can see why it was not more prominently featured in the Appendix N. Its pacing is almost glacial, a fact not aided by Merritt’s fondness for describing various colors of lightning with gem-like adjectives, which accumulates throughout the novel until one is nearly crushed under its flowery weight. A more potent reason being the essentially passive nature of the protagonists, whose very presence inspires cataclysmic change in the civilization of the Metal Horde but who remain utterly impotent in the face of the raw power of the Metal Monster. Indeed, the novel takes on almost Lovecraftian trappings if one is to consider the power differential between early 20th century man and the invincible Metal hordes. Nevertheless, the sacking of the neo-persian city of Cherses by the Lightning Witch Norhala and her Metal cohort remains one of the most potent and epic scenes I have ever read.
I was thrilled to finally get into Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was amazed how well the novel still holds up today. While the pacing might be considered too slow for a modern audience used to video games, I admired its strong, if quirky protagonist, the classic depiction of the vampire as a creature of spiritual corruption, not merely supernatural ability and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game quite a bit. It is almost a blueprint on how to make a good monster hunting adventure and, while slow, the novel had enough bang to keep me engaged, unlike the dog shit The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne, which is essentially Jules Verne slapping you in the face with his “baguette” as he is lecturing you about engineering and elementary chemistry for approximately nine thousand pages.
As a last hurrah, I was pleasantly surprised to find The Grey Maiden by A.H. Smith,
an almost Howardian collection of historic sword and sorcery tales (or perhaps just Sword tales) centering on an ancient sword of great potency, said to protect its wielder from death by the blade. It’s sword and sorcery (or rather just Sword) at its finest, turning a series of adrenaline-drenched tactical skirmishes into a melancholy commentary on the nature of civilization. Profundity through violence. Absolutely top-notch. I offer my credit to the folks at the Re: Reading Bookstore in Toronto for having some oldschool goodness every time I visit (last time I managed to snag a copy of Darkness Weaves by Karl Edward Wagner).
[ACTUAL REVIEW BEGINS HERE]
Reviewing campaign settings is actually pretty tricky and since I have never properly defined what I myself consider the necessary elements of a good published campaign setting (beyond the occasional review drive-by’s of various OSR and Avalanche products) I might as well retro-actively validate everything I have ever said about any rpg ever and do that here. This categorization is by no means definitive.
In general I consider good DnD campaign settings (and by limited extension other campaign settings not exclusive to DnD) to fall within two categories or phenotypes. Good campaign setting Category A is broadly aligned with the vast catalog of source material (see also Appendix N) that inspired DnD and is thus in and of itself a kind of clusterfuck of various fantasy inspirations that provides a backdrop for interesting fantasy shit to take place and achieves the two seemingly contradictory design goals of providing interesting handholds and guidelines for the GM to have his fantasy shit occur whilst simultaneously allowing for a plethora of playstyles, adventures, occurrences and encounters. Whether this is achieved by broad strokes or sheer mindboggeling skull-crushing ego-devouring depth is secondary. Because Dnd is itself a grotesque gestalt creature, it makes sense its settings follow in its wake. Category A is theoretically simple to pull off because it has been done before but it is very hard to do properly since you are literally following in the footsteps of the dozens if not hundreds that tried to do it before you.
At this point it paradoxically takes more balls and skill to look at almost half a century of actual play, setting material and established tradition and decide you can do better whilst staying true to the source material and spirit of the original game then it does to make a My Little Pony with Rape setting where everyone plays 20th level robots. At its best, rich and varied, at its worst, a clusterfuck like Rifts.
Salient Examples: Greyhawk, Mystara, the Calyxis Sector (Dark Heresy).
Category B follows in the wake of A and represents an extreme deviation from the established norm. Category B tends to be sacrifice versatility for focus and instead seeks to augment or facilitate a select FEW playstyles and adventures while being on the whole unsuitable for many others. Category B can be enjoyed for those seeking a change of pace from the original game but by its very nature it tends to wear out its welcome as the player, ever greedy for new greener pastures, eventually returns to the country of his home. Category B should aim for one or a few great campaigns rather then the vast diversity of Category A.
At its best, the culmination of a singular vision, at its worst, a stunted, inbred mule-creature. Or this.
Examples; Carcosa, Ravenloft, Dark Sun.
The Chaos Gods come to Meatlandia is very much of the Type B category; an outrageous gonzo place of equal parts silly and horrific that will probably be memorable if nothing else and represents a great change of pace but is unlikely to be the setting of prolonged campaigning. It reminds me of On The Shoulders of Giants because it is also really fucking bizarre, but it differentiates itself by being A) not Lazy and B) kind of fucking cool and creative. TCGCTM takes many of the same steps as OtSoG but goes right where OtSoG went left, thus ending up as a something that is damn near engaging if its utter weirdness doesn’t freak you out.
Where do I begin? The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia is a 92-page campaign setting supplement for adventuring in the bizarro cronenbergian fleshcrafting-horrorshow world of Meatlandia. Irreverent, occasionally sloppy (what the fuck is it with Lotfp 3rd party products and lack of editing?), silly and grotesque, it surprised the fuck out of me by having some genuinely clever (if at times over the top) game design decisions and actually sticking to the fucking theme of charnel, worms and chaos that it sets for itself. Surprisingly, its irreverence comes across less as the insecure posturing of a teenage goth kid chuckling at all the cool kids on the dance floor then it does as Charlie Day from Always Sunny proclaiming that yes, he did cut the brakes on the car, before triumphantly rolling out of it while it is still driving. WILD CARD BABY! WOOOH.
The premise is thus; The Great Worm who made the universe also made the world and spawned its gods (who have appropriately silly names like Gragnar and Bokap and Korum thank you very much). Korum, god of Law and Tyranny, decides to betray the fuck out of all of his fellow gods and murders them, issuing in a multi-millenial reign of absolute law, tyranny and stifling order. The book then introduces a second, somewhat incongruous event; THE RETURN OF THE CHAOS GODS. Great worm gods that have tunneled through the earth for millions of years (that’s a darn incompatible time table you got there) are now very close to the surface, with myriad reality warping storms, natural disasters and other shenanigans as a result. Refugees flock towards the fantasy metropolis of Meatlandia in a desperate bid to escape the clusterfuck. Yikes!!!
The central setting of Meatlandia is the identically titled city-state; a formerly tyrannical metropolis of teeming millions ruled by an omnipotent overlord (like 90% of memorable cities since Fritz Leiber have been and GOD BLESS) that is now fracturing under the strain of the encroaching Chaos gods. I got about 8 pages in and they had already introduced the nearly omnipotent Meat Lord (17th level wizard), the Flesh Factories that churn up untold thousands (mostly refugees) as raw materials for Meatlandia’s unique form of Fleshsculpting Murder Magic and industry of Flesh Golems and I was already grinning.
Oh yes motherfuckers. Meatlandia is Gonzo up the Wazoo! From its Snake-wielding Level 15 Magistrate, Flesh Golem Mechs, the Overlord’s Personal Monster called Z the Redeemer, secretive guild of assassins (THE DEATH’S HAND FUCK YES!) running half the city, Rustafarian Hippy Rival Law Cleric and band of Chaos Bards (OF COURSE THEY BROUGHT THOSE BACK), Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia comes across as a late night cartoon on Adult Swim and it knows DAMN WELL what it is doing and doesn’t hold back. Damn straight!
Fortunately, the designers never forgot that they were making a gaming supplement, so for all its gonzo sillyness, level 12 Wizards running about, bazaars that sell horribly grotesque enchanted items of bone and blood and corpses being worth 100 gp (mention use of the Gold standard if you use Lotfp next time), it takes care to drip feed you just the right shit that you need to make this a viable setting for an outing (the game expects your characters to stumble into Meatlandia from elsewhere, though it provides a TREASURE TROVE of setting specific character classes in case you decide otherwise or people die (very likely)).
The city is given a map and is subdivided into 4 districts with their own rulers but major landmarks within the city are almost entirely ignored. Instead the game stats out and describes several important NPCs, gives them all relationships with eachother and some personality traits and voila! Instant city game. It’s a nice bonus the characters are colorful as fuck and larger then life but my point is the essentials are there. Not just enmity too. Kidnapped or scorned love affairs, ideals, revenge…the whole shebang!
Now would be a great time to bring up the fucking rules. While nominally written for the Lotfp system, the choice is an odd one, as Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia seems almost dying to emulate 1st and at times even 2nd AD&D with its choice for saving throw bonuses, weapon specializations, percentage based thief skill annotations, spell school specialization (Lotfp doesn’t have spell schools) and attack bonus progressions, with the Lotfp Skill point mechanics being added as something of an afterthought. Nothing that is unplayable to the point where it requires work.
It is little hints, both the AC, Ability Scores above 18 and the Attack bonuses of the NPCs in question are fairly high, which is unusual in Lotfp, where both Attack bonus, Ability Scores and to a lesser extent AC tend to be capped. TCGCTM also makes use of a nine-fold alignment system where Lotfp only uses the Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic Axis. I know this comes across as Pedantry but what is it with Lotfp 3rd party products and legal sloppiness? Come to think of it, the adventure could have used one last edit to filter out some spelling errors.
After an explanation of all the major (and minor players), which are kept abstract, which I suppose makes sense in a fluctuating magic super-metropolis, the adventure provides you with a short glossary to bring you up to speed on the necessary concepts; Meat-men are fleshwarped warriors and the ruthless will pay good coin to be so augmented, Churches of Law are permitted while those of Chaos are (still outlawed), Weird Flesh-craft items may be purchased in the bazaar and Chaos Storms are terrifying things that can appear at any time. Description is always evocative rather then comprehensive, meaning that sufficient detail is given for you to flesh something out without burying you in detail.
What the campaign setting does brilliantly and where On the Shoulders of Giants took a pitfall at this point is to immediately provide you with 20 rumors on the City and its environs that may or may not be true but they serve to either shed some light on the setting material, introduce a hook, hint at some of the perils of Meatlandia but they are never useless and there is always something going on. The point is that the setting gives you the tools you need run adventures within.
Favourite hook: In this city, there are two identical twins who do not know one another. They each have a magic number tattooed on their chests. These numbers have unimaginable power.
After that it takes yet another SMART fucking decision by giving you something that is EVEN BETTER then demographic data on the population distribution of Spider-faces or single quotes about the prices of God-flesh; 50 random encounters that serve both as interesting and exciting detours as well as some exposition on the state of the City. Good stuff. Brawling Rustafarians and Carnomancers, Worm Rain, Disease-Ridden Junkies, Ranting madwomen, bizarre events that are remniscent of John M Harrison’s 2nd (or maybe 3rd?) Viriconium novel (City is covered by Catterpillars, all water turns red, Rivers appearing where they were not previously etc.). The absurd quality of Chaos gains a certain horrific edge by being juxtaposed against human tragedy. These encounters and the subsequent Disease table drive home the nature and atmosphere of the city far more then the general descriptions above.
The Diseases are nice, running the gamut from simple dysentry to some sort of horrific worm-themed mind-madness but the sloppy editing takes its dreadful toll, and the diseases are often incomplete with regards to duration, effect (you cough blood, what does it do?) and the terrifying Black Marsh Vile, which has no mechanical effect despite being fucking horrific. I will give the supplement props for bringing the grim alongside the wacky though:
Nose Rot. Your nose is affected by an errant rust fungus and falls off. Long fuzzy
orange brown hairs fill the hole left by your missing schnozz.
A note about the writing. Meatlandia uses a lot of pop culture references in order to convey a point. The city is compared to Karaki or Shenzen. A class is like the T’anzen from R.Jordan’s Wheel of Time  or Merry from Lord of the Rings. While no mortal man is guiltier of this then I with my constant obsessive referencing of either Appendix N pulp fantasy novels, grimdark video games and the like, I consider the use of such crude comparisons in a supplement unevocative and lazy, though occasionally effective. If I describe my villain as “giant praying mantis with Blackadder head and voice” you probably know where to take it from there.
What city would be complete without a megadungeon beneath it? In this case the worms have tunnels going far beneath the city, shifting on occasion and containing all sorts of nastiness, including the White Worms that must be milked for the expensive arcane catalyst known as “honeydew.” I question some of the raison’s de etre of anything but tunnels below the city though, as they are not really described as anything other then tunnels containing hunters, refugees, madmen and thirty thousand varieties of worms, though I guess the reality altering properties of Chaos should suffice as an explanation. To its credit, the setting is fleshed out by giving you several sample locations, all of them filled with REALLY FUCKING WEIRD SHIT, some of it quite disturbing. A Quartz room that is an oracle to the Worm Gods. A geyser of loamy soil of unknown purpose and power. A room that is empty but for silver, but that contains an entity that will steal your colour (and possibly causing your death). This is the kind of shit that Bryce talks about when he means Wonder, and I dig it.
If anything, the area outside the city is better, and is kept almost amorphous in terms of description, with only a continent map to give you any hard facts, not that they are needed. Instead the supplement gives you the sense of the place; Abandoned towns, Chaos Storms, Refugees. There is an EXCELLENT d20 refugee table with all manner of orphans, farmers, slavers, thugs, soldiers, academics and wounded civilians. Chaos Storms are utilized PROPERLY by inflicting an area with random effects both BENIGN AND DELETERIOUS and encountering them is incentivized by the fact that towns that suffer from prolongued Chaos Storms tend to be Abandoned and thus easy to loot. Again, I think they did a pretty great job here, many of the effects generate interesting (and occasionally wacky) game play in and of themselves;
For the next 1d20 actual minutes, any player who tries to speak can only neigh like
a horse. The PCs have to figure out a way to communicate without language.
Plants will uproot and flee the area. Plants may be attacked at AC 10, 2 HP. Killing a
plant will release a vengeful forest Djinn that will do whatever it can to destroy the killer.
Spiritual Dissonance. Every player at the table must pass their character to the person
to their left. Players will control the newly acquired character for the remainder of the
Perhaps a bit too silly for the more jaded Players, I personally think that most of my players would find exploring a city under the effects of such a storm to be an absolute ball.
Another huge draw is the classes. Like On the Shoulders of Giants Meat Gods introduces new classes but unlike 75% of OtSOG (I am sorry but I have to compare it to something and the two are conceptually similar just vastly different in execution) it doesn’t suck dick and the classes are awesome, if fucking COOKY with a capital C. I am talking Yuffi levels of cooky .
Three different varieties of Bard. All of them connected to Chaos, with limited thief skills and some interesting special abilities (if you roll 1-4 or 4-1 on a 4d4 at the start of an encounter you automatically defeat a single opponent in the most over the top way imaginable for example). One has the ability to get randomly generated minions from a tavern after a night of carousing and (again) with all due diligence, the adventure does not hesitate to provide you with 20 awesome minions, ranging from an old drunk that pretends he is a wizard to what is probably Satan. Glorious. Each NPC is unique and often more then it seems. One is a Bear.
The most interesting class was the Nexus Bard, sort of living chaos battery that can store the random effects generated by Chaos Storms and unleash them upon his enemies. Because of their ability to SUMMON chaos storms, they are often driven from their homes, and at high levels they can actually exact a sort of tax from cities if they agree not to stay there.
It ends with the Chaos DJ, a completely baffling class that has the ability to, and I shit you not, pick three Songs before each Adventure. At any time during the game, the player can put the song on and then perform any ability that is described within the song. The Kicker? Each song may only be played once and any part of the Lyrics may be used. Maybe use this one once and then never again is what I am saying.
One very interesting if somewhat messy race/class combo is the Kaldane, a race of John Carpenter’s the Thing severed spider-heads with mind control powers and the ability to use a specially bred race of headless human mounts as uh…mounts. Between d3 hit dice, spellcasting power, the ability to wear helmets and all sorts of other wacky shit, the Kaldane is by far one of the most interesting new classes I have seen, and it is a damn shame they forgot to state the XP requirements for this one. C’mon Meatlandia, I am throwing you a bone here.
Arguably the biggest change from bog standard boring Lotfp DnD (with its rape gay sailors, insect cults and evil gingerbread men) is the magic system. All wizards are Carnomancers and HYPERCHARGED to get more Transmutation spells at the cost of…well, nothing. Each wizard must use the magical reactant Honeydew (derived from hideous white worms) at least once (with possible mutagenic effects) in order to attain first level after which it becomes a free choice (that is totally worth it since honeydew vastly augments your magical powers). Failure means you gradually gain wormlike mutations, which means charisma penalties so it might not be worth it, depending on how hardcore your GM is about enforcing it.
The spells are what sells it. Grotesque fleshwarping and biomancy powers that would not be out of place in an episode of Parasite , including the ability to permanently alter other creatures (with few drawbacks but social ones, dayum) are a huge part of the setting and the powers are suitably evocative and horrific. I think they did a great job here, even if the mechanism behind, say, the Supernatural Grafting spell could have been explained better. As it stands most of what is and what is not possible with higher level fleshwarping is left up to the GM, with the answer being probably; quite a lot!
As seems to be a staple of the Lotfp genre, the bestiary is really bizarre and 80% worms. One of these is not even technically a monster but a houserule, meaning you can eat mealworms almost everywhere to regain 1 hp but every 10 worms you lose a point of CHA permanently. Or the mind worm where you and the GM must both pick a die and roll an opposed test but if you pick the same die the PC automatically loses is sort of meta. Other tiny worms are more like environmental effects that take effect under certain circumstances. The section is pretty weak overal. While a few gonzo monster like the Brambolisk and the bizarre Sideways Emily encounter help spice up the section, most of the Worms are fairly boring and this bestiary really needed some more monsters in the vain of Z the Redeemer mentioned in the NPC section. A shame.
Magic items on the other hand, is solid as fuck, with a gorey selection of fleshcrafted wonders that make the ones in Ghoul Keep seem tame. Severed wizard heads that act like scrolls, blood that gives you physical strength at the risk of infection, disembodied eyes that you can use to watch places but you must place in your mouth to attune yourself to. These are solid fucking item. No boring “+1” to so and so, instead a kickass selection of items that are metal as hell. Great job!
To top everything off, MG gives you some adventuring hooks to get you started, and these are a bit off a dissapointment on the gonzo level, particularly after the stellar magic item section. The hooks are not really adventure seeds per se, more like campaign outlines or events, and they don’t really set the mind aflame with adventure possibility. Particularly the use of the Worm Witches, an otherwise stellarly ridiculous band of socialist spellcasters, is dissapointing. This really needed a few good adventures beyond ‘YOU GET CAPTURED AND MUST ESCAPE THE FLESH FACTORY.’ I mean credit where it is due, almost every location that is described in the setting is given a little map and some work but it needed a bit more oomph.
I think it’s judgement time. The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia is an absolutely bizarre and uniquely quirky campaign setting for Lotfp with a unique vision somewhere between Meviélle’s Bas-Lag, Stormbringer and Harrison’s Viriconium (2nd one) mixed with an Adult Swim Cartoon and the Phyrexians from MtG . It nails its gonzo setting pretty well and contains all the elements you need to run it.
On the other hand, the writing is uneven, and fails on the story level (the encounter level being the most important one and pretty solid overal). People might find it too bizarre, silly or quirky to really get use out of it, and I feel it could have used just one more edit to give it something more of a rough polish. As it stands, it is a very interesting, but flawed product that fits as well into the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Catalog as anything else.
I promised myself I would stop being kind. Critics that actually critique are very rare in this section of the hobby, the market is overflowing and I have not seen so much corruption since I turned on the fucking news. I want to be kind but a critic must harden his heart, and sweep the field clean of all imperfection. He must scathe, and infuriate, burn and heckle towards perfection, leaving molten puddles in his wake.
After reading The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia I was 1) Jetlagged 2) Intrigued 3) Set alight 4) Curious to check out their other shit 5) Thinking of ways certain chaos effects could be implemented and how I would handle the city 6) Kind of stoked about the Fleshwarping powers, which are fucking cool. I think that means I owe it at least a 5 out of 10. Get your shit together, get a shave, put on a shirt and I shall salute you. Its pretty interesting and for people looking for a sort of megcity variant of Quelong, not too damn bad. It’s the little things, the occasionally shitty art, at times clumsy prose and the dodgy rules that keep me from loving it. Check it out if you are into bizarre gonzo weird fantasy, and steer the fuck clear if you take your elfgames a bit too seriously at times.
 I cannot help but admire the stones of people putting a reference to Robert Jordan in an OSR game. Also I found out the guy started off writing Conan Pastiches, nice.
 How are you doing fellow weeaboos? Boy I do love watching great chinese cartoons like Sword Art Online, the new Berserk series and the last season of Bleach. Namaste!
 Namaste ferrow Gaijin!
 Sup fellow Nerdlings. Tapped any Black Mana lately?