[Review] The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia v2 (OSE); The Gonzo-est

[Campaign Setting]
The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia v2 (2019)
Wind Lothamer & Ahimsa Kerp (Knight Owl Publishing)
For Old School Essentials

Summary: Elric of Melniboné + Perdido Street Station + A Storm of Wings + Ill Met In Lahnkmar + In Viriconium + God Emperor of Dune + It’s Always Sunny Se10Ep5 “Charlie Work”

The Chaos Gods Come to meatlandia.jpg

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Knight Owl Publishing is a quirky little publisher operating on the fringes of the OSR notable for its weird clay-sculpture covers and quixotic and frankly BATSHIT products, one of which, the Gonzo-horrific Chaos Gods come to Meatlandia, I have reviewed previously. I was contacted by the enigmatic Ahimsa Kerp to render my judgement on his second edition, which he claimed addressed many of the criticisms previously leveled against it.

Chaos Gods come to Meatlandia v2 is essentially a revision of the previous work, staying at around the same page count (90 pages) but cutting out most of the fluff, cleaning up the writing and providing more monsters, spells, classes and other gameable stuff. It also cuts out a lot of the setting background, meaning the setting is now far more impressionistic, a collection of components, tidbits, classes and NPCs that the GM’s brain is meant to assemble into some sort of semi-coherent setting.

A short recap; Being about as close an approximation of Planescape’s Sigil as written by Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Chaos Gods of Meatlandia takes place in on the continent of Meatlandia and mostly in the city of the same name, and is characterized by its grotesque flesh-warping magicks, random-effect Chaos storms and an astonishing variety of worms. Almost all detail about the setting from the first edition has been stripped out and must now be inferred carefully from the writing. The tale of the God of Law enacting his millenia-long reign on the world only to have it cruelly disrupted by the arrival of the Gods of Chaos, who burrow beneath the earth, is omitted and the arrival of the Chaos Gods is more enigmatic. In similar fashion, the super-metropolis of Meatlandia, which will likely be the site of most of the action, has been busted down to a few paragraphs.

I can’t help but think Lothamer & Kerp did themselves a disservice with this innovation. The strangeness of the setting means it is requires more effort from the reader to grasp the author’s intent. A good introduction (a page at best), is essential. Meatlandia as it is is relatively unchanged from the first edition, but now its nature must be carefully inferred from stray sentences and class description. In particular, all consideration by the authors on how to use Meatlandia has been omitted, which I consider a bit of a shame.

That being said, there are many improvements. Meatlandia opens with a compendium of gonzo classes suitable for Meatlandian campaigning. As I said in my previous review, I was reminded of On the Shoulders of Giants, but every time OtSoG zigged Meatlandia zagged. The classes are batshit insane but they bring something new to the table. Three Seperate Bard Classes! The Kaldane from E.R. Burroughs John Carter. Rust Paladins and Ninja’s! Most of these are additions to the roster of character classes, with the Meat Mage replacing the normal Magic-User, unless the magic-user comes from a different plane. Each class has notes on followers at level 9, something which I think is omitted too often.

It’s become blurrier what Bards are in this edition of the game but a bunch of free-spirited anarchists that have figured out how to harness the power of Chaos itself is still fairly accurate. All bard classes have a very small (.003) percentage chance to kill a powerful enemy outright in a feat of unlikely bravery. After this it gets increasingly weird and 4th wall breaking. The Chaos DJ picks three real world songs each adventure and can activate them and can gain any power derived from their lyrics ONCE! after which the song becomes well known and can never be used again. The Nexus Bard is a sort of walking entropy generator that gathers energy from the reality-altering chaos storms, improves randomly rolled treasure troves [1] and can extort tribute from nearby villages for not summoning a Chaos Storm. The Raconteur is what amounts to the Face everyone makes in point-buy games, a character with improved reaction rolls and an increasingly large contigent of retainers that they can round up every adventure. What sells it is the retainers themselves. An idiot peasant boy who believes he is a chosen one, warriors of Chaos seeking to fight chaos, scam artists, Drunken Masters, murderous shapechangers, A Deity and the Judge from Blood Meridian. Now that’s a henchmen roster!

Added to this are the horrific Kaldane who live in warrens beneath the city,  human-heads with spider-legs, probably the most gonzo of the gonzo classes; a d3 HD racial-class with psionic mind-control ability,  stealth and climbing skills and cleric powers. At 12th level, you must battle the current Kaldane King for rulership over all the Kaldane, with the loser being fed to the Rylkors. Nice.
The Rust Knight is a paladin variant in service to the jesus-like Rust Lord, who begins play with an enchanted mace that corrodes all armour and weapons on a hit, which grows in strength as the Knight gains experience, a more beliggerent alternative to the normal paladin that lacks the mount and lay on hands features.

The second addition to the class roster is the Death’s hand Assassin, about as straightforward a take on a pop-culture ninja class as I have ever seen (and what gonzo setting would be complete without ninjas?), but also one of the best, a crossbreed between the monk and the assassin, with randomly rolled class features ranging from Circle Kicks, Moving Silently, Blanking the Mind, or attacking once per level for a single round.

As it is in the previous edition, Wizards have been replaced with the grotesque Carnomancers, fleshwarping drug-addicts whose indulgence in the magic-enhancing Worm Honeydew slowly mutates them into White Worms. Every time they indulge they must make a saving throw or enter the next stage of mutation. The trade-off is that these mutations can be beneficial, and the drug is incredibly potent. The roster of spells has been compressed to 6 levels, an improvement from the previous unwieldy 9, which left the upper levels mostly deserted.

Magic in Meatlandia is ubiquitous and horrifying. The Meat Lord’s reliance on meat-magic enhanced soldiery, flesh golems and all manner of twisted creations means raw materials are in high demand. An intact corpse yields 100 gp at the meat market.  Packs of Body recyclers scour the streets, and corpses will not linger long. It is not difficult to imagine the effect on player character behavior. Magic items made using Meat Magic can be purchased at the Meat Market for a reasonable price, though normal magic items (+1 swords et. al). remain rare and difficult to obtain. The coveted Worm Honeydew and other organs of the worm must be harvested from the bodies of the White Worm, in the infinite tunnels beneath the city.

Unlike On The Shoulders of Giants this charnel economy seems at least a little thought out and follows logically from the setting, though I would be curious to see it brought into play. The GM can essentially omit gold piece-based treasure from any dungeons in Meatlandia, the coins and jewels of the old setting now contained in the slain and mutilated bodies of their enemies. It also means Meatlandia has to be horribly, terrifyingly rife with murder, which is implied.

The ready availability of Meat Magic also means there’s an element of Biopunk to Meatlandia, which is implemented fairly well. Wealthy aristocrats will have themselves or their bodyguards turned into Meat Men, flesh-sculpted horrors with super-human ability. A lot of the fluff has been cut out of this edition but the core remains unsullied, and the end product might even be clearer.

The game advertises 75 new spells, which is a bit of false advertising, Many of the Meat Magic spells are well-known like Charm Person, Sleep, Feeblemind, Haste or Shapechange. There do appear to be some additional low level spells added to the list, and the addition of a dedicated Meat Magic spell list with a few transmutation, enchantment and necromancy spells thrown in gives them a more distinct feel from the mainstream wizard. The ability to cast spells as lengthy blood rituals without burning through slots is both flavorful, provides a possible gold sink (since blood and cadavers are now carefully priced).

Another thing that has improved markedly is the descriptions of spells themselves. Where the first edition would be clipped and light on mechanics to the point of laziness, the Second Edition works out the mechanics behind many of the grotesque flesh-warping sorceries of Meatlandia in a paragraph or less, always delivering enough information to render the whole usefull as more then simple inspiration. The repertoire of spells consists of all manner of body-horror spells, bodies can be incorporated into oneself, bone blades can sprout from one’s hands, explosive blubber can be thrown or foes can be permanently reduced in spiritual status. Spells are as potent as they are obviously horrific, and at 9th level the Permanent Mutation spell enables the creation of unstoppable Meat Men. My only problem here is that the lack of a counter-balancing mechanism or cost restriction (like a point of Con for each permanency spell in AD&D)  means that at 9th level, the relative capabilities of your party are going to go up the stratosphere if they are packing a Meat Mage. I mean the game is going to fucking explode and your GM Screen is going to shit blood. Do you like the taste of power-gamer cum?

The gazetteer of Meatlandia proper has been compressed into a description of the NPCs along with some tables. The tables, contrary to much OSR fare, are not random tables but tidbits that tell you about the nature of the surrounding setting. Its an interesting exercise in addition by subtraction, a place as defined by a rumor table, a table of 20 refugees from surrounding lands, d50 city encounters, and a list of random diseases.

The encounters are interesting in a bizarre, chaotic way, indicative of the Chaos that is seeping into Meatlandia, a vast, tyrannical metropolis of flesh factories and warring factions, plagued by a bizarre calamity. The gonzo element is evident from the tone. This could have easily been played straight as ultra-grimdark. Instead the terror is interspersed with sillyness.

Meat STORM. Big slabs of big meaty meat fall from the red sky. Some are small, like meatballs, but a fair bit go up to whale sized and will crush houses, people, and pets. All of the meat looks the same but 50% is poisonous and 50% is edible. The truly poor can often get work sampling meat for the rich after meat storms.

A Level 0, half-naked honeydew junkie armed only with a meter long soggy disintegrating worm tries to mug you. If she hits you with the worm, roll on the disease table

Every 10th person in Meatlandia is randomly shiny today

Refugees flee to Meatlandia from the encroaching Chaos Storms. These are played straight, men and women and orphans from all walks of life, gangs, craftsmen, drunks and others with loved ones lost to the storms. There is less potential for adventures here, and the entries come across as flavor only, though this time the flavor is bleak even if the phenomenon is bizarre or humorous, in the manner of The Barley Brothers in In Viriconium.

The lands outside the city are slowly being depopulated by encroaching Chaos Storms, random effects that affect the entire area (and are the source of the power for the Nexus Bards, who must chase and summon them if they are to remain at their full power). Points for finding a way to turn them into hooks.

Some Nexus Bards lead teams of adventurers into Chaos Storms and loot abandoned towns and cities. Few survive this dangerous occupation but those that do can
escape with great wealth.

Chaos storms fuck with your magic in the manner of the Wild Mage [2] and can have d100 random effects with each encounter during the storm, some of them fourth wall breaking or memes.

Everyone save vs. spell or: Little sibling. A smaller, more annoying version of yourself will grow out of the ground. They will have ½ the level and hp as you.
They will fight on your side and will be your friend, but everyone else will like them more than you. Little sibling is permanent.

Mexican standoff. The referee should roll 10d6 before initiative is rolled. The first person to act will automatically succeed (swords will hit, spells will succeed, thieves will hide, etc.) but will also take the 10d6 in damage. Each round, the referee will roll one less die.

Nowhere Man mode! All combat restrictions are lifted. Characters may use any weapons, armor, whatever without penalty. They can fight with two weapons at once, use two-handed weapons with one hand, use a shield while firing a bow, etc. Ends when the storm does.

The tone of Meatlandia is clearly tongue-in-cheek and most of these effects should be entertaining, though CgCtM never comes across as though it is using humor to cover up laziness or hack writing, it works as a joke that takes itself mostly seriously.

Though Meatlandia does not have a Gazetteer it does have something even more essential: Factions, each represented by powerful NPCs to give them a face and make them relatable, each at odds with the rest to provide for opportunities for intrigue. The Ruler of Meatlandia is the eponymous Meat Lord, a harsh tyrant that rules the city with an iron fist and armies of Flesh golems, Meat Mechs and augmented soldiers. He is given a full retinue so you can already prepare for the day the PCs try to smack him down, which is likely to end in a campaign ending shitstorm.

I am pleasantly surprised how well the NPCs are balanced in this gonzo adventure. The Meat Lord has a right hand with a secret vulnerability (a halfling fetish), a terrifying assassin creature (Z the Redeemer), a former acquintance now estranged (high level Meat Mage). He has a direct enemy in the form of the Rust Lord, a messianic figure of corrosion that controls a quarter of his city and preaches an end to the corruptive power of Meat Magic, with a knightly retainer of mysterious origin. These two opposing factions of Law are balanced by an enigmatic faction, The Death’s Hand, a society of assassins that have been targeting nobles and high officials of the Meat Lord. Their Leader is unknown, but their most known operative is the Kaldane Motar the Shadow. Add the fucking Chaos Bards led by Sugar Sam & Honey Ham [3] as a benevolent CHAOS faction outside the city and the spirit of Meatlandia rising as the enigmatic Lady of Sorrows, which has a cult.

There isn’t a single NPC here that was superfluous, each has a clear function and adds something to the setting and has enough defining characteristics to stand out and be noticeable. I think this might be the most important thing in a city setting. Factions.

This. Is. Good. Elfgame. Writing.

Chaos Gods in Meatlandia comes across as a lot dumber then it actually is, or perhaps it is much better constructed then it has any right to be. I mean there’s a guy who uses a snake for a sword and other insane shit but that’s all surface. My problem with gonzo is that the style is inherently antithetical to a serious treatment and thus anything made in the gonzo style runs the risk of lacking in depth. Now while Meatlandia has some of this problem (despite having a map, both Meatlandia and the surrounding continent are so fluidly defined as to be essentially arbitrary for example), clever use of factions means a GM has enough components to craft a complex and nuanced, if not very deep, scenario. IT GIVES YOU TOOLS TO HELP YOU RUN THE TYPE OF GAME YOU ARE LIKELY TO WANT TO RUN WITH MEATLANDIA. DIFFERENT FACTIONS HIRING THE PCS TO DO ALL MANNER OF CRAZY SHIT UNTIL YOU PISS OFF THE MEATLORD AND GET FUCKING MEATMURDERED.

Location in Meatlandia feels abstract but there are discrete differences to what you do there. In Meatlandia? City Crawling. Outside? Hexcrawling in abandoned cities struck by Chaos Storms. Where are the dungeons? An endless network of Worm tunnels that changes below the city, that change with the Chaos Storms, where Honey Dew and other rare organs can be harvested and all manner of refugees, renegades, criminals and WORMS hold up.

And again Meatlandia doesn’t fuck you by leaving you out to dry with such a weird setting and provides a few sample rooms. These left me mostly befuddled. A bizarre shrine that answers one question truthfully if the PCs perform a service for it IS COOL. Rooms that can make you talk to worms, rooms that bleach you of color and this.

There is nothing in this room, but for the first 5 seconds of peering in, each character
will think they see scared kittens floating in bubbles, rising from the ground and
disappearing into the ceiling

Tekumel it aint.

There’s a tonne of new magic items, all of which can be purchased at the Meat Market. I am torn. They look appropriately grotesque (a severed wizard’s head which can be made to incant spells), and their effects are nice (The Blessed Blood boosts physical scores at the risk of depleting them for the next 72 hours) but they feel a bit utilitarian and the stated price for obtaining some of them IS WAAAY TOO LOW. I miss items that at least imply some sort of ancient history or whatever. Again, for a gonzo game it’s good stuff. An animal skull helmet that allows you to transform into the animal for 5k. That’s doable. There’s enchanted entrails you can basically use to cast what is essentially a no risk Contact Outer Plane1/day for 2500 gp. That’s gamebreaking. Extra eyes that can be placed in locations and seen out of if attuned to their owners. Flesh that can be used to kill an enemy at range (save or die) if a single drop of blood is obtained for 5k.

This is setting is a powergamer’s wet dream.

The bestiary has been cleaned up a little bit since the last time. I consider that wise since a Bestiary is ESSENTIAL in establishing a setting, few things define it as well as the antagonists the PCs face. The threat of Chaos is personified by the Chaos Worm, in its weakest incarnation a 16 HD behemoth that causes chaos storms and swallows its opponents whole. There’s meme-ey worms too like the Deathname Worm, which lurks unseen in every room but attacks only if the PCs mention a name and then the word ‘worm’ which comes across more as a drinking game rule then anything else. Most of the bestiary is character or wizardly options as NPCs, Skaldane, Meat Men, Meatanimals, Meatmonsters, Death’s Hand and the White Worm, last stage of the Meat Mage.
The horrific power of the Meat Men, any fighter with fleshwarping made permanent, is driven home time and again. The most awesome idea in here is probably a mech made from 100 vivified bodies that only the Meat Lord knows how to make. He has a personal one but owns at least 20 more that he will deploy without hesitation.

A few cosmic entities are hinted at, each bizarre as all the rest. The Great Worm is a bit of a no-brainer, but who has heard of a star-travelling Fish that devours planets, or the deadly Side-ways Emily that one runs a risk of encountering in the lower dungeons (1% per room entered). Or as Wind Lothamer puts it.

Few tales are told of the shadowy, nebulous long-snouted badger-creature that rules
the deep caverns of the earth, and the disembodied head she carries—a godling, a
denizen of the deep, another Emily, or maybe just part of the strange creature. Worshipped by blind molemen, Emily lives in the shallow caves and tunnels pursuing her own nebulous agenda.

The book ends, very smartly, with a list of adventure seeds, from the obligatory YOU WAKE UP IN A FLESH FACTORY GOOD LUCK SHITHEAD to the grotesque society for the appreciation of Murder, the Danger of the Meat Market [4] and something about a commune of  witches that have invented real socialism ™ and are trying to get away from the depredations of the meat lord. Given the overal strange and over-the-top nature of the setting, some hooks to get everyone going are appreciated, though to their credit Ahimsa and Lothamer weave in enough story hooks in the writing itself.

I think its about verdict time. But before I do so WHY WAS THIS NOT MADE FOR DCC? THIS IS THE GONZO-EST THING THAT EVER GONZO-ED. WHY NOT RUN IT ON THE GONZO-EST SYSTEM?!?

Meatlandia is creative and fairly smart for its apparent gonzo stupidity. The game doesn’t exactly aim for versimilitude but the setting has a surface plausibility that is needed to run the game. I think a page of life in Meatlandia would have been a good idea, though its not like you can’t infer it from the content of the rest of the book. As a campaign setting it provides enough content to serve as a detour or a side-trek from one’s regular venture and can probably sustain a campaign’s worth of sessions but it is not complex enough to sustain the endless adventures of a Wilderlands or an Imperium of Man. There are a plethora of interesting ideas, classes and spells that may be transported wholesale, if one so desires.

In my previous review of this product I talked about type A and Type B campaign settings and this is very much a type B setting, an extreme, creative mutation that can provide a welcome distraction from the status quo but does not have the staying power to replace the more durable settings of one’s homecampaign or Glorantha, The Old World or whathaveyou. And that’s fine since its 90 pages of gameable material with all the fluff cut out, that doesn’t waste your time and provides you with ideas and tools to run something cool. I can gripe about the fact that its going to be an unbalanced shitshow but if you are target audience that is EXACTLY what you are looking for, and your opponent has access to all the stuff you have so it should be easy.

This is a niche product, likely to appeal to fans of DCC, Isles of Purple Haunted Putrescence and Towers Two. If you are a fan of that type of aesthetic, and you are looking for an excuse to use your Korn Albums as background music, then you have my blessing. Second time’s the charm dudes. From a low *** to a high ***.

The Newest edition of Chaos Gods can be purchased here.

[1] As an aside, how many GM’s still use randomly generated treasure troves? In a Sandbox you’d damn well better.
[2] Very approved in Princeland.
[3] Those are their names
[4] A redeeming quality, magic may be had but its acquisition is never safe


5 thoughts on “[Review] The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia v2 (OSE); The Gonzo-est

  1. Thanks for taking another look at this. Good to hear (that for the most part), you are down with the updates. And nice catch on the Blood Meridian reference–it’s not exactly subtle, but you’re the first (that I know of) to note it.

    Like

    1. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.

      Like

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