[Review] Fire on the Velvet Horizon (OSR/Avant-garde); Admirable but Mistaken

[Monster manual/fluffsplat]
Fire on the Velvet Horizon (2017)
Patrick Stewart & Scrapprincess
Short summary: Pokémon + Monster Hunter + Planescape + Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find them + Serotonin reuptake inhibitors

I am fucking back. After perusing Fire on the Velvet Horizon literally one page at a time while taking time off to finish Langrisser, discuss my upcoming project, get to work, watch Conor Mcgregor vs Khabid Nurmagomedov live at 6 in the morning, sleep occasionally and howl madly at the moon, I realized the first question I needed to answer satisfactorily before I could start is how do you even review a monster manual?

Bereft of a system robust and comprehensive enough to tackle the bulk of manuals, let alone the exceptions, we are left with little recourse but to slap one together in the heat of the moment, trusting to superior penmanship and keen observational insight to win the day where a carefully categorized system would have been helpful. Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a 124 page monstrous manual, a really fucking weird monstrous manual from a really fucking weird designer/writer and as such it was hard to review because it was hard to figure out what exactly it was and wanted to be.

This review is written from the point of view that it is, first and foremost, a product designed to be used at the table, a grotesquely unfair perspective considering it has neither monster statts and much of its merit (judging from the handful of positive reviews I have managed to scrounge together from the pink and fluffy corners of the internet) is derived from the presentation and the artstyle, the poetry etc. etc. as much as the actual content and substance of the book.

While I managed to extort some observations from my artistically inclined partner that mentioned such trivia as ‘beautiful line work, like a starting Don Nace, great juxtaposition of art and background’ and the rather disparaging ‘the artist is not sophisticated in their use of colour,’ I was only able to offer uncomprehending nods in return, followed by mute autistic screeching whilst pointing to a 2,500 point Grey Knights army. I review elfgames damnit.

Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a grotesque and entirely appropriate fusion of the artfaggotry of Scrapprincess with the writefaggotry of Patrick Stuart (not the captain of the Enterprise, the OTHER one) to create exactly 100 pages of monsters, and some trivia in the appendix. Each was cobbled together in the Marvel style, with Scrapprincess doing the art beforehand and Stuart using the art as basis for the writing, something that ultimately works to the benefit of the whole. For all of the subsequent gripes I can (and fucking will) levy at this, there is a certain undeniable harmony between the art and the writing.

FotVH starts off on a terrible foot by kneecapping itself right out of the gate. It unapologetically informs us it has NO STATS. Various excuses are then trotted out why it has NO STATS; stats are not avantgarde (implicit), anyone who can use our ridiculous monsters can decide whether or not it has 4 or 5 hitdice, convenience is a waste of time or something. This reasoning only makes sense if you accept the following assumptions;

1. OSR products are purchased in a sort of mirror-universe with bizarro theories of economy and only have value if their content cannot be reproduced by oneself, regardless of time constraints.
2. Integrating an idea into a roleplaying system is a practice so utterly trivial that it can safely be outsourced to the hands of you, the moronic, unwashed and dirt-fingered tabletop-gaming public!, whilst the outre designer’s place is to merely cultivate the brilliant fruits of his god-like imagination from his lofty perch atop the Ivory Tower to inspire the aforementioned dull-headed proletariat rutting in the filth below it.
3. Time and resources are infinite or at least evenly distributed in bizarro land, negating any comparative advantage house-brand monster manual X might have by including said statts. Fuck statts, why even include page numbers?

So Fire of the Velvet Horizon is a collection of monsters and I find it hard to describe a collection of monsters (or at least this particular collection of monsters) since it is difficult to find attributes that apply to all of them while there are plenty of attributes that apply to some, but not all of them.

The book actually did a great job at winning back my good favour with its first entry, the Abhorrer, a creature whose entire concept revolves more around role-playing then direct combat and thus makes the inclusion of statts rather meaningless. Had the entire book been like that, I would have stricken my sneering invective from the record and instead prostrated myself before the altar of FotVH’s genius, but ah las, most of the monsters in this book would have benefited immensely from statts. The premise behind the Abhorrer is that it is some sort of Abberation-like slug that projects a reality-warping field around it in which it is impossible to break the law. It is, in fact, impossible even to be impolite. The creature enters cities, and will attempt to gain influence by its superb mastery of politics and law, where it will do its utmost best to utterly fuck up the place by getting laws passed that will make life in the city hell. Taking it out means you have to either frame it for a crime (since it cannot itself break laws) and legally sentencing it to death or overtuning the entire social order of the city. BAM! INSTANT HOOK!

One of the first commendable attributes of the writing is these types of creatures, many of which are not just bundles of qualities or stats but who carry in them the seeds of adventure. A cloud of feeble-mind inducing living gas can only be defeated by a cunning ruse, but because of its effect the plan must be simple enough so a moron can carry it out! The Lunaraptor is a bizarre creature that acts permanently confused and can only be harmed unintentionally. The Oranorn can only be killed by a team that manages to defeat its contradictory Geas attacks that it places on all who stand against it. The Predator Saint entry is a horrific animal skull shrine that is more a page long adventure description then any monster.

The monsters are weird, or perhaps bizarre, and this is both one of the books weaknesses and its greatest strength. Stuart’s creatures readily exist in multiple overlapping planes of reality, dream-worlds, mirror-places beneath the swamp, as incarnations of bizarre concept like ‘the shadows of manufactured things,’ have bizarre abilities, are living embodiments of Shame or Postmodernism or whathaveyou and are in general, very creative and strange. The downside is that many of them will be too damn strange to fling in a home campaign unless that home campaign happens to take place in settings so fucking magical they make Numenera or Planescape look like Game of Thrones. The monsters imply a sort of ersatz setting (like any neutral monster manual in itself) that Stuart fleshes out in a few entries, like the Living City of Thieves, The Melanic Moors (which can only be navigated by the insane or the drunk) and the Vent city of Jukai.
The monsters are downright bizarre, more like mad children’s boogiemen then any creature of wholesome legend, but I suppose to some this is a feature not a bug.

I think a crucial factor of anyone enjoying FotVH will be your suspension of disbelief and the degree to which you feel an idea can be enjoyed without having to be integrated into a coherent whole. Are you capable of accepting a world filled to the brim with bizarre monstrosities with physics that make faery-tales look like hard sf by comparison? Then you are in for a treat. A bird that steals teeth from corpses and serves other monsters as a sort of warning device. The hideous Eclipsor, a Fallen Star encapsulated in a body of Iron by mad star cultists. A monster with gastric acids that preserve iron and flesh in its stomach for centuries in a sort of stasis and vomits but once in a hundred years. The ideas are often interesting but the mechanics behind them are wonky as hell.
However, I should point out that this book has ANTHROPOMORPHIC BULL BIO-MECHA, THUMB SIZED EVIL ARMOURED MERCENARIES WITH FULLY AUTOMATIC SPELL WANDS, A POLTERGEIST THAT STEALS OTHER HAUNTED HOUSES LIKE A HERMIT CRAB, LIGHTNING-POWERED MAD-SCIENTIST CLOUD-LICHES AND A PLANAR SUPER-DEVIL THAT STEALS PATCHES OF PRIME MATERIAL PLANE AND DRIVES THEM TO HELL THROUGH THE ETHER WITH A GIANT BONE STEERING WHEEL AND DEMON PIRATE CREW. Some of the entries are fucking kickass.

A point in the favor of FotVH is its diversity of monsters. I mean this in the truest sense of the word. Unlike comparatively new monstrous manuals that tend to devolve into laundry lists of things you can kill for xp, many of the monsters in FotVH lend themselves incredibly well to a plethora of different scenarios. The Dreamons may be conjured to fetch any one item in exchange for a bizarre fetch quest in return. The Hostage Frog traps one person in its mouth and will then start levying demands, neccesitating more roleplaying/trickery. The Pickchicken functions more like a magic item then a monster, escaping the trap of its egg and attaching itself to the first creature it sees for several days and opening nearly any lock before vanishing within a few days. Plenty of creatures have valuable body parts, secrets, knowledge, skills or other attributes that makes it worth interacting with in ways that do not necessarily involve murder, though murder will obviously occupy the bulk of the interactions.

There are some themes that more or less tie this bizarre menagerie together, which I will expound upon now for no other reason then to deflect accusations of literary philistinism. Deep Time, Birds, Dream-realms, Deep-sea Creatures, Dinosaurs, creatures that exist in perspectives or dimensions different from ours, Creatures that cause or are fed/created by suicide, (Mostly) benevolent takes on traditionally evil female monsters, creatures from (a bizarre faery version of) outer space, Creatures that you can eat, Dogs, Bug-men, Bugs, MAGIC BEASTS.

Not included or very rare; Dragons, Undead (with two exceptions), traditional creatures of heaven and hell (with one bizarre exception), oozes,

In true worldbuilding fashion, Stuart creates a sort of coherence to this collection by establishing relations between some of his monsters. Some creatures serve primarily as minions to more powerful creatures (be it voluntarily or under duress), some, like the awesome Hex Dragoons serve as amoral mercenaries, and some creatures may be conjured up by anyone who knows the right ritual, [1] actually facilitating dungeon composition and complex encounters. Good on you for paying attention to that one, eat shit for leaving the statt work in the hands of the poor, tortured GM.

One of the weakest elements of the overall work is the writing, which might sound incongruous given the amount of praise that usually garners from other corners and the aforementioned creativity I lauded. After reading a couple of pages it started to get really grating. Stuart is a sucker for byzantine vocabularies and will readily throw around words like ‘griseous, xanthic and fluvious’ which, combined with a sort of postmodernist poetry that adheres to no fixed rhytm and page descriptions that drag on for a minimum of one page made the whole work tedious to assimilate at times. You might be swept away on winds of imagination and poetry but I just find it gets grating after a while. Stuart never uses one word or sentence when a paragraph will do.

Look at this shit:
…clothes , the race, the memory of the act , the knowledge of their innocence or guilt, the very reason for their life and death and life beyond, all are lost to an infinity of time and change. The memory has its life and shapes itself . They float like undulating flukes or strips of silk. Flat, simple, turtle-like heads, basic arms and bodies like long and crooked flags . The oldest are old indeed and have haunted species long extinct in worlds no one recalls.

The (f) is meant to indicate a new letter the author made up for this work.

(f)orn owls are three feet hiqh or more, grey-faced with eyes like gold infections infiltrating coal. Black their feathers are, darker than the night almost, black on
black like stains of ink upon a black cats back. Only when their faces turn and catch the light, or when they spread their winqs in flight can they be clearly seen. But still not heard. (F)orn Owls step silently and rarely move, in flight they make no sound. The grey down of their under-wings muffles even the movement of air. A flag shifting gently on a still summer clay makes more commotion than a (F)orn owls swoop. They could be right above you now, criss-crossing the dark.”

As a coffee table book, it might be pretty rad to show to your goth boyfriend but as a means of clearly communicating the author’s intent to a prospective reader it leaves something to be desired. Here is where the ‘book as art’ and the ‘book as tool’ schools start to clash. It took me forever to read through this thing because it is simultaneously very dense and very long-winded. And that is NOT a point in its favour.

I think the ideas of FotVH deserve praise even if some of them tend to be very fucking silly (the pickchicken) or too bizarre for a casual game but there is some shit here that I should point out. I feel the authors lost considerable steam when they got about three-thirds into the book and you can tell because there are some entries that are just sub-par. A snake with a baby’s head sewed onto it just feels like its trying too hard, almost the entire letter S may be safely discarded with the exception of the Sanguinary Crane, Sunset Stork and Shame-Beast (FotVH has a lot of fucking birds, contributing to its pokemon feel) and I feel some of the monsters are just reskinned versions of other monsters. How many elemental creatures composed of some elements of ruined cities can you concoct? If you make an omnibus you should always make sure the first and the last few entries are among your strongest work and in this case the work more or less peters out at around S, with a few blips to barely keep the pulse going.

Fuck I can rant on about this thing for hours. I’ve composed a sort of short literary device that I will perfunctorily dub the ‘Sneek/Prince-Test” in order to give any prospective pruchaser of teramorphic lexicons some hint as to its actual contents. Perhaps it will provide a glimpse into the contents of the work where mere words have failed.

Largest/Most Powerful Creature (tied); Mile-long Ante-primordial Cosmic Serpent made of darkness that causes catastrophes but also protects the world from extraterrestrial terafauna.
Most Harmless; tiny spider that lives in your pocket and captures stray thoughts in web, which may be eaten
Palette Swap; The Paradusa is a medusa variant that can turn stone statues back to life. The Hydra-moray is merely a variant of aquatic hydra.
Lovecraftian; Race of destruction causing entities hailing from earth’s cataclysmic dawn seeking to prolong their existence by stealing the released energies in our own dimension.
Nightmare Fuel;  Bug with naturally occuring glyph colouration immune to harm or molestation, crawls on body, nests in eye, lays eggs. Extra-terrestrial divine parasite ape whose bites are subconsciously forgotten by its victims.
Most Edgy;  Race of once noble humans that now form secret cult of pidgeon-shapechanging murderers. Led by half-pidgeon humans. Must ingest live pidgeon to join. Embrace the cringe.
Humanoid:  Potemkinmen are humanoids that imitate men by building fake villages, wearing masks (even of other potemkinmen) and waging war with strange ‘war-puppets” in the form of knights.
Dark Beauty; A sanguinary crane is a transparent blood-drinking bird beloved by amoral aristocrats for the beautiful red colour it gets when it has drunk from heartsblood.
Silly: Stegaloswans are stegalosaur analogues with the grace of swans thought semi-mythical.
Badass; Group of embittered veterans of war against faery kingdom. Irreversibly shrunk and largely forgotten, their sacrifices trivialized. Brutal, bitter and armed with fully-automatic recominant curse-wands and a grudge.
Most Kiel Chenier:  Race of naked Moon-angel baby creatures that compel everyone around them to caress them obscenely and can only return to the heavens if they can generate enough silver fire juice by thinking happy thoughts WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?

And it’s a wrap. Don’t get me started on the damn art. It’s not boring or formulaic and it has a rough sort of 80s do it yourself charm to it, but I won’t argue with anyone who finds it is childish and some pieces are absolute garbage. I will concur with anyone that it fits the writing of Fire on the Velvet Horizon far better then Though Forgotten Otherworlds.

It’s Verdict time. What the fuck do I say about this thing? On the one hand it makes a tonne of interesting decisions and it avoids a tired rehash of beaten paths in favour of balls-to-the-walls faery-tale insanity. On the other hand it is long-winded, its lack of stats makes it hard to use, the monsters are too bizarre for most home games and fuck me if they didn’t run out of steam at about page 80. Whether this will appeal to you is very dependent on the sort of DnD you will run. I predict that if it is purchased it will probably languish somewhere in a dark corner of one’s elfgame shelf, pawed through with admiration and awe but seldom seen in a dungeon floors. The implied setting begs elaboration that I feel will be forthcoming. An undeniably creative book, but not created with use in mind. I’ll readily recommend it to anyone who simply cannot get enough of Stuart’s unique brand of loggorheaic autism and I will ingest hemlock on the certainty that this brand of fantasy bestiary would have been an unmitigated disaster in the hands of almost anyone else (imitators take note) but ultimately I wouldn’t use it for myself. 5 out of 10. Great ideas alone do not a great book make. Deliver the other half of the work and finish your shit and even the gods will praise you.

[1] A key assumption of fire on the Velvet Horizon, other then the existence of multitudinous dimensions and planes seems to be the ready availability of rituals that may be exercised by anyone with the correct knowledge.

 

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4 thoughts on “[Review] Fire on the Velvet Horizon (OSR/Avant-garde); Admirable but Mistaken

  1. I think this was a very fair review. I’m a huge fan of some Patrick/Scrap joints, but this is them at their most indulgent. The lack of stats pushes this into pretentious territory, because it wouldn’t really have been hard. They could have dropped a few of the weaker monsters (didn’t make it all the way to “S,” but I’ll take your word on it) and spent some time on stats. I think Veins of the Earth is overall a much stronger product, but it falls prey to the pair’s excessively-artsy impulses in some places.

    Other than DCO, I think Stuart’s strongest work is Maze of the Blue Medusa. The commitment to table-readiness is on the opposite end of the scale from FotVH. Both Patrick and Zak get real artsy, but it’s justified by the fact that the dungeon is, among other things, an otherworldly art gallery. Another plus: one of the most beautiful books that I have owned.

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    1. You hit the nail on the head. Indulgent is EXACTLY how I would describe FotVH. Stuart is talented but he needs an editor to tell him to sit down, shut up and do his due diligence. I liked DCO a lot when it came out but as time passess the little niggling errors magnify in my mind and making me wonder if it was even made with actual play in mind.

      VotE is definitely on my reviewing list so I am curious to see what I shall make of that. I plan to tackle MotBM aswell but that might take a while considering its size and scope and my relative inexperience with megadungeons. We shall see.

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      1. It occurs to me why we need creators like Patrick, Scrap and Zak. Even when their works get a little pretentious and wanky, the fact that this material exists helps to show us the breadth of possibilities with role-playing games. Part of the reason I became interested in the OSR was because I read a mainstream article profiling Zak which got into stuff like A Red and Pleasant Land. I had long ago written off D&D as a place for juvenile and bland fantasy. Seeing that stuff really brings home the point that the rules are just a chassis on which you can hang almost any flavor of experience that suits your group. It didn’t hurt that stuff like ARaPL also sounded fun to play.

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  2. This sounds like the sort of work from which one might excise one or two glowing nuggets at a time, to enshrine them as the centrepiece of a short campaign. In the context of traditional monster manuals, “here is what you might find in this self-contained intellectual property”, it’s probably a right pile of wank. Personally I prefer to do a simple job well than a complex job badly and that’s why I don’t muck around with these conceptual monsters, but I admire the scope at which the unfettered StuPat operates. (He did Dreams of Ruin too, right? I love that one. If you have an established world which you feel like trashing for fun and profit I don’t think it can be beaten.)

    Talking of me doing a job: the urge to transmit opinions and outcomes of events has not entirely waned and with the stirring of my academic loins I find myself wanting to go off base and get angry about vampire fun pretend time again. I am currently reviewing a Storyteller’s Vault product, since the Vampire OSR is fully upon us, and it’s inducing some serious screeches…

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