The Gardens of Ynn (2018)
Emmy Allen (Dying Stylishly Games)
Levels 3 – 5 (though suitable for a wider range)
Summary: Alice in Wonderland + Arthur Machen + The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem + Castle Gargantua + A Red and Pleasant Land + Changeling: The Lost
As I read more of the OSR, my concept of a what makes for a good adventure matures. What once seemed groundbreaking is now, in retrospect, mediocre and amateurish. I have little doubt that in the years to come, I will look back upon earlier reviews and revise my estimates. In all my time as a reviewer, I have never defined what I consider a 10. Today that changes. Today I mature a little. Today we take a look at Gardens of Ynn.
The 10 is a description of the platonic, the transcendent, the absolute. The 10 is the number of the concept, the system. If innovation (successful innovation) is the measure of merit then the 10 is a New Form of DnD. What if all you had were dungeons and someone invented the Hexcrawl? The game suddenly gains a new layer of possibility. Gardens of Ynn gives us not simply an otherworld but a new way to approach planar exploration.
Planar adventure has been around since 1e but all that time the potential of these places could only be ineptly hinted at, the seemingly infinite potential ended one hex away from the edge of the map. In Gardens of Ynn Planecrawling is like diving into the ocean, each layer revealing, gradually, the astonishing depth and terrifying inhabitants of that submerged realm. You can never master the Gardens of Ynn. There are always routes within routes and if you dive too deep, your way back might not be there when you try to ascend again. You can get trapped. Swallowed. You become part of the Gardens.
The Gardens of Ynn are a place of decaying faery-tale wonder, colorful madness and otherworldly horror, abandoned by its owners and ruined by memetic apocalpyse. One can enter them from any garden by drawing a door on the wall and writing “Ynn, by way off [current location].” If you explore it you must exercise caution; after 24 hours the door closes and you are trapped there, possibly for good. The door to the real world acts as a sort of anchor, the further from the door you stray, the more bizarre the environment, the greater the danger but the higher the rewards. A perfect execution of an old faery tale concept.
The Garden is described in terms of n number of points with the quality of Depth, which is measured as the number of turns of travel away from the entrance. Each point is a randomly determined location (e.g hothouse, cultivated field, fountain court etc.) with added detail (e.g flooded, Inverted, ivy-covered etc.) with an Event (encounter, hidden-treasure, stairway to a deeper layer e.g). Whenever PCs arrive at a point they may elect to Go Deeper, moving to a point that is one Layer Deeper, go Back to the point they originated from or stay (roll an Event every Turn). Players may Go Deeper from the same point of Origin as often as they want but they can only Go Back to a point they originated from. Locations and encounters Gradually shift as one goes deeper into the gardens as Depth is added to the random encounter roll. It is an elegant system reminiscent of Kabuki’s Gargantua but without the illusionism  that rendered that particular randomly generated dungeon somewhat flawed. This is PERFECT, and the format can easily be repurposed for all manner of extra-planar delvings.
This expanding big-bang flowchart is complicated by several possible events. Some locations may have special shortcuts that take one to a location many layers deeper or a pathway that doubles back to a location higher up. Conversely, an exit can COLLAPSE, meaning the players are trapped until they find a way back up. I find a great quality of this system is that EVEN if it is entirely identified, exploration is still exciting. Travel is strictly between points (and always means a Change in Depth) and takes a turn, unless one runs away in battle, in which case you get LOST a random amount of levels deeper and must now explore until you find a passageway that leads back. Your chances of finding such a passageway are about 10% per turn of exploration, which makes getting lost a pickle, but not a death sentence. After 24 hours the door closes and upon your return, the landscape is different. It cannot be mastered, it can only be explored.
There is a subtlety and a harmony to the environments that is hard to convey. What begins as ornate lawns, chessboards, hothouses and chessboards soon gives way to unnerving shadow puppet theatres, strange flesh-vats, corroded girders and gaping holes in the land revealing a bottomless abyss below. Reality itself unhinges as you stray from the exit, the landscape itself becoming infested, predatory, hypnotic or simply unhinged. Ynn is a place that is winding down.
The locations themselves are pretty great. Almost all of them can be interacted with and bring something to the table, whether it is a seemingly innocuous herb garden or bizarre flesh vats (that can actually be figured out and operated if your PCs are VERY clever). Some locations serve as obstacles or are dangerous to navigate, providing incentive to double back and try another route (after all, nothing in Ynn is set in stone). Some are unique and are only encountered once. A shadow-puppet theatre that can steal your very shadow if you linger overlong. A hall of harlequin masks, each cursed and powerful at the same time, threatening to annihilate the self.
Sub-systems are neatly folded into the location table. Quick rules for generating towers or hot house complexes are provided. The prose is efficient without coming off as too technical or dry. The imagery is vivid and immediately recognizable. Hothouses can be looted for rare orchids or can be filled with giant Sundew, murderous. Tombs contain menacing 30s skeletons.
The inhabitants are former creatures of the Gardens, now gone feral. Azure foxes, transparent hummingbirds, birds of paradise/prey. Sometimes they are the former servants of the masters of Ynn, butlers with animal heads, topiary golems, Myconid composters, Rose dryads, turtles with bonsai trees growing out of them. There is so much variety but it never feels incoherent. Alice in Wonderland creatures show up in the form of the Jabberwock, Chess Courts (that you have to fight on a chessboard map and each has unique abilities) The Unicorn and the dreaded Questing Beast. Some creatures are clearly variants of classic MM1 antagonists, changed to fit the logic of a decaying garden.
As you get deeper into the gardens the creatures start getting more formidable. There is a different encounter table for day and for night (a day lasts 48 hours on Ynn). The terrifying Empty Robed Ones and worse. Gardens comes up with a unique form of antagonist.
The Idea of Thorns, a sentient meme that can be contracted by merely reading it, listening to someone express it or any other form of information. Every time the victim loses control of himself the Idea burrows deeper, eroding the self, forcing its host to reproduce it. The Idea has infected the Masters of the Garden and is the reason it was sealed off. It wants to escape. Other memes, mere offshoots of the Idea, also exist in the Garden. Good shit.
The True Masters of the Garden now haunt its interior as shades of their former selves. The Sidhe are to elves what elves are to men. Ethereal, Few, Powerful, Terrifying. An odd mixture of Fae and Vampire, each unique, virtually immortal and twisted by the Idea of Thorns.
This is what I want in my faery-tale elfgames. Whimsey, beauty and horror. Running away in cackling glee from a sentient butterscotch only to get caught in a dynastic struggle between two sentient chess sets. Slowly watching your friends change over multiple forays until they are not human anymore.
The treasure is terrific too, nary a boring entry in sight. A single point of criticism would be that as written it is unclear if Gardens uses the silver or the gold standard and it almost feels as though the treasure tables were written using a different metric then the locations. A minor gripe. Precious Orchids. Sidhe bones like fine porcelain. Rare wines. Enchanted Teeth. Vorpal Swords. I found myself listening to the invisible drummer that lives in my head as I read through the tables. The entries are a solid mixture of the familiar and the novel, combined seamlessly.
In fact, if anything sums up Gardens of Ynn it is thoroughness. Everything fits. Tables with random Ynn alterations that your characters will gradually accumulate as they explore the gardens? Check! Rules for making Ynn-born PCs that originate from Ynn to replace losses in case they remain trapped for a long time? You bet! One page bullet point apocalyptic scenario in case the Idea of Thorns escapes the Gardens and enters the realm world? Yes. Damn Straight.
Unlike the pernicious table spamming of repeat offenders like Vornheim Ynn makes great use of random tables but they seem out of place or superfluous. Treasure, knicknacks, Dreams/Visions, rumors. A white stag in flight bleeding from the mouth. Everything is included, nothing feels superfluous. There is a balance here between atmosphere and utility that is pitch perfect.
I see no reason you could not repurpose Ynn’s generator for any number of outer planes or supernatural wildernesses. The multiverse must be rendered unknown again. Phyrexia. The Lands beyond the Wall. The Abyss. The North Pole of the Old World. The Tempest Lands.
Of the appearance and layout! Yes! It is good. The art is open source but old and well composed. The layout is intuitive and the language is clear and descriptive, at times beautiful and evocative.
Faery tale DnD has a new Emperor. He is charming, gracious and kind. He is magnificent, cruel and terrifying. His laughter is full and stirring. His gaze is cold and deep. Beloved of Children. Bane of Widows. Lord of Summer. Bringer of Winter.
All shall love him and despair.
In summary: DAYUM. 10 out of 10.
3 Dollars, 79 pages. My thanks to Ynas Midgard for recommending this one.
 A central conceit of Castle Gargantua was that you provided a Mega-Dungeon with multiple pathways but the particular room that was going to be behind any old door was front loaded anyway, it was a very carefully disguised linear dungeon (albeit one whose contents may be bypassed at will).