[Review] The Punchline (Lotfp); Last Laugh?

[Adventure]
The Punchline (2018)
Zzarchov Kowolski (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels ??? (1-3)
Summary: The Last Circus + Solomon Kane

The Punchline marks the latest contribution [1] of the inimitable Zzarchov Kowolski in the Lotfp canon and concerns the machinations of a villainous band of satanic clowns menacing a vaguely French region with plague and human sacrifice. Operating on a level of meta-irony most human beings cannot conceive of, The Punchline is actually played entirely straight and is all the stronger for it.

Punchline is very interesting in an oddball fashion because it is the first OSR or DnD adventure I have read that is entirely devoid of supernatural elements, yet is surreal and bizarre enough to sustain an atmosphere of supernatural horror. At times the writing relies on rather contrived coincidences and suffers from over-explanation, but Punchline manages to deliver the goods and deliver them hard.

Clocking in at 34 exquisitely decorated and useful pages, including motivation cheat sheets for NPCs, terrifically legible maps (by Kiel Chenier) and some very impressive art pieces by Journeyman101 that manages to capture the atmosphere of the module perfectly, there is really very little to dislike about The Punchline.

Punchline combines elements of investigative adventure with its cast of NPCs with the trademark Kowolski nonlinear location-based exploration. Like his other works, the complexity is generally concealed in the NPCs and their interaction, rather then any feature of the map itself.

In a valley of a vaguely franco-phonic region of reinassance-era Europe, along a trade route between two empires, year unknown, mischief and terror strikes. A child has been kidnapped in the town of Forkton. An unknown menace is to blame! In fact, the Troupe of Satan’s Fouls, plague-bearing looters convinced they were saved from the plague that took their companions by the direct intervention of Satan himself! It is a surreal module of madness, hysteria, superstition and horror. The result is damn fine.

Strongest and most important are the NPCs themselves. Both villains and witnesses (as well as the occasional red herring or obstructionist NPC) are described in evocative paragraphs that establish their purpose in the adventure (i.e the information they have), as well as serving to give them some evocative color. Characters are never overwritten. It somehow works where Obscene Serpent Religion 2 did not.

Bernardin is a lean and wiry man in his early thirties with only half a mouth of
teeth and a slurred manner of speech. He had been out checking for signs of feral
dogs last night when he heard the sounds of a band of raucous people moving about.
They were in an area midway between the old church and the abandoned watchtower,
though he wouldn’t know the significance of the location. He would describe it as the
old village’s midden heap. He’s otherwise kind of a dull-witted yokel.

Occasional lapses of snark notwithstanding, the writing is effective and manages to capture exactly what one needs to run it properly.

As an investigative adventure The Punchline works fairly well because it has ample red herrings that lead one into the real events. Everyone blames a Jewish Family [2] living nearby for the Plague, and an angry mob is on the verge of forming to take them out. The cult itself is dispersed across several locations so the characters will likely discover what is truly going on piecemail.

If there is a weakness to the writing, it is that The Punchline is at times too eager to spell everything out, phrasing events in terms of natural immunity to the Red Plague by virtue of a very unlikely ancestry (all the Five Ringleaders have the same father) while the adventure would have worked just as well if they had all been ambiguous. Indeed, Punchline takes immense pains to emphasize that all beliefs are no more then superstitions, Satan’s Jesters believe only lies, and the plague and their subsequent immunity has a natural origin. Even the magic items one finds are fake and nonfunctional. This takes something of the horror away from the whole, and seems at odds with the implied lovecraftian worldview of Lotfp as a whole, where reality is but a thin veil of lies stretched over the broiling chaos of true reality. The false nature of the threat takes away from the menace but adds to the irony.

The actual locations are well described in terms of legible maps, featuring realistic structures (an old watchtower!) as opposed to video-game maps suitable for set-piece combats. The opposition relies on the same armaments as the PCs; maces, swords, crossbows, muskets and so on. The adventure offers the possibility of convincing some cultists, especially the weaker willed ones, of abandoning their mad masters, who have, after all, cobbled their beliefs together from smatterings of Catharic lore and sheer delusion. The fact that some of these Cultists are likely to be infected with the Red Death is something the PCs will have to figure out on their own, and should have been emphasized more given the lethal nature of the disease. The cultists themselves are relatively tame but the disease gives them an unpleasantly lethal side effect. Credit should be given for providing bonuses on saving throws if one kills them only with blunt weapons (and penalties for slashing weaponry).

While mad, the cultists take intelligent precautions and overcoming them in great numbers is likely to require the aid of the village, which is perfect. Traps are set, sentinels are placed etc. There is a wonderful verisimilitude to the whole adventure that is excellent.

Kowolski offers suggestions to make the adventure seem all the more ridiculous by offering a list of clown catch phrases (“they all float down here” “why so serious etc. etc.”) but I can imagine a dedicated GM just wanting to run it straight as is and enjoy a few sessions of bizarre horror.

One can have one’s reservations about the actual Punchline, which is that in all likelihood, 80-90% of the village will die from infection even if the threat is stopped. The nihilistic twist ending has become a staple of Lotfp as of late and clashes somewhat with the light-hearted take, but one supposes that as conclusion to a stark, brutally nihilistic adventure of superstition, madness, and the transient nature of mortality it is entirely appropriate.

The Punchline is a marvelously atmospheric little piece that is more reminiscent of a Warhammer Fantasy module then oldskool DnD. Its use of atmosphere, investigative elements, red herrings and colorfully described mundane antagonists sets it apart from the rest of the Lotfp catalogue. By using no weird, Kowolski somehow makes the weirdest adventure of all. Good stuff.

Zigging wherever OSR 2 would have zagged, the Punchline makes is through unscathed and provides a highly useful surrealist thrill-ride that I don’t see anyone getting through without at least a few laughs. Kowolski is a Zen-master of the location based module.

7.5 out of 10.

[1] He does appear to be posting regularly on his NGR design pages so we can assume he has not departed the OSR for good, which is good news.
[2] The 1600s were a period of extreme religious persecution and strife and Jews were not exempt from this. It is perhaps somewhat predictable that in the Punchline, the Jews turn out to be innocent of the crimes they are accused of.

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10 thoughts on “[Review] The Punchline (Lotfp); Last Laugh?

    1. I can’t think of a single Kowolski module that I disliked, even his earlier Gingerbread Princess stuff had a bizarre elegance to it that can only be admired. Never falls prey to the aspiring novelist trap either. Great game designer/module writer.

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  1. This sounds awesome. I think it’s maybe meant to hit harder after a few sessions of dealing with crazy supernatural junk, then the bait and switch of having none. Players expect the fantastic solution more than the mundane one. Love it

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    1. That’s a great point. Most of Lotfp attempts to break the mould, to innovate, to invert or subvert, so yes, this also falls within that category. I kind of love it here, it seems appropriate in a low magic setting to have occasional adventures where you have little to no magic.

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  2. Is this the request thread ? I can’t go to 8chan anymore, if I do TV says I will start shooting at religious assemblies and shit. Anyway, would you consider reviewing Winter’s Daughter ? Dolmenwood sounds like Dunsany + B3 + C.A. Smith which would be right in my alley.

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    1. Whew, Vacation to Canada, so I’ve been a bit slow in replying. Sure I’ll take a look at it. Got some good 2nd hand book shit too; A Voyage to Arcturus, Germania by Tacitus, Beowulf, an abridged Mahabarata, An Evil Guest hardcover by Gene Wolfe and a Guy Gavriel Kay (for whatever reason all the bookstores in Toronto are stuffed with Guy Gavriel Kay so I bit the bullet and got A Song For Arbonne.

      I had to leave one bookstore upon discovering a copy of 12 Rules for Life with the title placed over (“An Antidote against nuance”) while the goateed hipster with noodle arms that manned the counter talking about how “thinking that classical music is the best music is such a white thing to do” but I probably would have done so anyway because they didn’t have seperate sections of fiction by genre. Gross. Toronto canucks are pretty cucked (some medicated leather jacket wearing dude who biked past me swearing about “shit-faced n*ggers” excluded, probably), the girls are uppity and dye their hair an unsightly shade of magenta and you can’t ride a public transport without hearing another air-headed ramble-athon about “cultural appropriation” and “critical theory.” None of these were hindrances as I bestrode the city on foot, unshaven, sweating in a coat that for all appearances proclaimed me as a member of the Night’s Watch, enacting my second handed literary trail of tears, carrying off collections of Kull and Bran Mak Morn to the Lower Kingdoms.

      I gazed upon the sprawl of concrete and glass from the heights of the CN Tower and every hour was beer o clock. My birthday breakfast was an all you can eat indian buffet after hours of making love to my woman. I planned my life and wrote dungeon encounters in a coffee shop with a staff that was no longer familiar to me.

      I return with hardened heart and tempered soul. My conviction is steel, my words are razor-sharp. I am your goddamn Prince.

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