[Review] Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas (Lotfp); Kowolski shits the Bed

[Adventure]
Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas (2019)
Zzarchov Kowolski (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels ??? (1 – 3)

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor barbarians of orange boiling seas

Whelp, It had to happen sometime. Kowolski made a bad adventure. The last son of Raggi, the Golden Boy, the Man Who Can Do No Wrong, finally shit the bed. Happy 2020 kids. All your dreams were lies.

Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas is a 42-page follow up to the intriguing Going through Forbidden Otherworlds and finally delivers on its promise of crusading Conquistadors under alien skies delivering the word of god to alien heathens. That sounds like an instant ***** amirite? How do you even fuck that up?

A long time ago, alien space wizards kidnapped neanderthals and transplanted them to the moon of Nibu, leaving them behind to fend for themselves. 45000 years later, Conquistadors come through the gateway, oust the royalty from the ruins of the alien city with steel weaponry and gunpowder and start converting people to Christianity. Enter the PCs.

Kowolski somehow manages to make a high concept science fantasy scenario seem boring and mundane. The writing has all the enthusiasm of a textbook on advanced corporate accounting. A deluge of mundane detail stifles any enthusiasm the suffering GM might have mustered for this half-baked non-effort. Dimly glimpsed between chapters worth of meaningless anthropological detail are utterly mundane encounters that Kowolski can’t even be bothered to write up[1]. The cutesy art of Kelvin Green renders the whole experience subtly insulting, as though they are laughing at you through a haze of percosets.

Various amenities are available in the city; market plazas still sell local goods using
newly minted silver coins (the previous currency of carved stones in different denominations is banned, but they still float about). The local staple foods are breads
using flour from the domesticated bulrush variant and melon sized acorns from a
domesticated oak variant, though various small gourds, berries, and other tubers are
common in small amounts. Salt seems to be almost unheard of beyond alchemy and
so all meat is fresh, mostly being capybara. Caribou are a domestic beast of burden
but they are fairly rare so most wagons are better considered wheelbarrows and are
pulled by docile wolf sized dogs. Boats don’t really exist beyond novelty toys.

The central conceit is that the PCs can decide either to team up with the Conquistadors or the ousted Royal family of Neaderthals and presumably some sort of big battle will follow as one or the other is finally destroyed. It should essentially be War God meets John Carter, a sword and planet adventure of epic proportions. There’s even a rule to give the PCs increased strength because of the low gravity.

It should be but it is not. The city is barely mapped, there are no statts for anything, no special defensive measures, no tactics or conditions when they retreat. There is an army roster which may be deployed whenever the attack takes place. Joining the Neaderthals in ousting the conquistadors is presented as one of two main options for the PCs.

The destruction of the Conquistador faction can instead be realized if the Powder Room is destroyed, a single room in a 5 room sewer complex. There are approximately 2 guards in the complex, with an unfortunate random encounter with a patrol or some feral dogs as the largest impediment. The sewer complex is essentially 3/4ths of a rectangle with a pointless secret entrance.

Listen, it’s not entirely devoid of potential. Kowolski takes the minimum amount of effort and introduces faction play within the fortress. The commandant of the city has a rivalry with the Bishop, who has been gaining increasing influence with the locals. The faction play is honestly pretty well done, the NPCs are at least colorful and different motivations and courses of action are explored but its too simple, it feels like the minimum amount of effort has been put into making this section work. You never get a sense that the author was inspired or is even excited to run the adventure himself.

There is a complicated hex map provided of the entire region but as there is virtually NOTHING OF INTEREST outside the city, a village and the stronghold of the opposing faction this seems like a waste, and it would have been easier to just draw a map of the region and highlight the major locations. Don’t give us random encounters composed of “seeds” like this:

Location:
Well spaced out fir trees with large amounts of old growth logs

Encounter:
1 A pack of dire wolves (1d4+1d8)

Weird:
A stone menhir

Don’t waste my fucking time. All the outside encounters are with pleistocene animals. NONE of the potential of having the encounter set on an alien world is explored. There’s no funky alien creatures, telepathic pitcher plants or other weird shit. Just prehistoric animals THAT DO VIRTUALLY NOTHING.

The neanderthals are gathering wild acorns and have left a large amount of
dried meat (about 40 lbs) unattended at the edge of the grove.

There’s nothing wrong with a few encounters like this in an adventure. Not everything can (or even should) be awesome. My problem is that this is the highest the adventure aspires too.

There’s two villages besides the princess, and these have the minimum requirements that needed to be in the adventure in order for them to work, that is to say, a condition wherein they will join the Princess, or a condition wherein they will join the conquistadors.

The Rebels themselves are ensconced in a fortress atop of a mountain peak, accessible via secret entrance. LINEAR CAVERN. Entrance. Cosmetic Detail. Prehistoric Animal that attacks on sight. Secret entrance.

There’s glimpses of good design here. One of the areas the PCs pass through contains Wood or Supplies which can be set on fire to force the rebels to surrender. That’s good, that means Kowolski thought about a possible scenario where the PCs would side with the Conquistadors.

I don’t hate what Kowolski tried to do here. It’s at least somewhat refreshing to have a scenario where the PCs must specifically befriend a faction. It has the minimum number of components required for the scenario to function, it’s about on par with what your GM would come up with in an average homegame after sufficient prep.

But nothing is sticky. Have you ever played B1? Do you remember the pants-shitting moment when Rogan and Zeligar’s voices can be heard from the entry-way? There’s nothing like that. Does anyone remember Dawn of the Overmind? It was a sword & planet adventure that came out 20 years ago that had TONNES of cool shit. Hideous alien creatures, a fight with the last avatar of maatzecorian, befriending alien locals, psionic artifacts etc. The best Barbarians can muster is cannibal neanderthals supposedly living in undersea tunnels. Fucking A says I. But there’s only an emmisary and they are not in the adventure. Why the fuck not? Were you saving the really interesting shit for the next entry?

The entire adventure comes across as half-assed. Perhaps, PERHAPS a DM can wrest from this sludge a worthwhile adventure after backbreaking labor. Did someone lose a bet? The only time Kowolski shows any enthusiasm throughout the adventure is when he has a chance to destroy any of the potential awe or wonder of the science fantasy premise with mundane writing.

(A) Temple of the Voulge
The entrance to this room is blocked with several layers of thick linen curtains. Once
past those, this room is freezing and has its ceiling, floor, and walls made out of solid
titanium. There is a vault door at the back of the room adorned with a keypad containing a series of buttons with unknown symbols on it. Directly in the center of the room is the frozen mummy of a long dead neanderthal mystic. Despite being long dead it still has powerful telepathic abilities and will psychically speak to any who enter the room telling them that only the worthy will be given the sacred pattern needed to access the all powerful voulge, warning that those who guess a false pattern will be incinerated by the powers of the ancient gods. Only those of noble spirit, great intelligence, and strong bodies may possess the voulge.

The mummy is a dick and doesn’t think anyone is worthy because it holds them to
its idealized view of itself from 3000 years ago, the last time anyone accessed the
voulge. The mummy really can’t defend itself and will change its mind pretty quickly
if people start to set it on fire, it is used to religious tradition keeping people respectful. It’s a three digit base 12 combo (there are 12 symbols on the keypad). If someone is legitimately some sort of paladin the mummy might also give the combination,
but for most groups it will be fire that unlocks the Voulge.

There’s a recurring trend here, which was present in Forbidden Otherworlds as well, where Kowolski takes a piece of advanced technology and describes it in dry, technical terms that utterly rob it of any sort of awe or wonder. That’s not how you do Science Fantasy.

The voulge is a communications maser meant for astronomical distances. It isn’t
floating with magic, but carefully calibrated magnets controlled by the orrery
to point it precisely at the right target. A communications maser meant for those
distances equates to liquifying and igniting any organic materials in line of sight
without heavy shielding (Save or Die). It has 27 charges and is recharged by cosmic
background radiation at a rate of 1 charge per 20 years. The Alien Wizards left it
behind as an emergency beacon in case someone somehow got trapped here. The
code to the room is the Alien equivalent of “9-1-1” or “S.O.S”.

Did you think I should shut the fuck up and that Item was pretty cool? Then you are in luck since that is THE ONLY ALIEN SUPER TECH ITEM IN THE ADVENTURE.

I want to go out on a limb here and compare it with More then Meets the Eye. I think everyone would agree that in terms of complexity, content, structure and so on Barbarians is far superior. It’s a classic premise that you don’t see that often and it works. I’d rather run More then Meets the Eye. At least Kelvin comes across as having had fun and going tits out with his goofy premise. It’s messy but there’s heart. There’s no heart to Barbarians. No zest, no risk taking, no daring.

Kowolski used to be able to create an interesting scenario with emergent gameplay possibilities within 10 pages. He is the first one to nail a time travelling adventure in a really unique way. Even his last outing had something novel and fresh to it. By contrast Barbarians of the Orange Seas feels stale and dated, like a B-tier Cordwainer Smith novel.

You can check out any of the ***+ Role Aids adventures in my review list and find them filled to the brim with TONNES of ideas. Magic items, creatures, concepts, locations. There’s been a trend with recent Lotfp adventures that makes even the good ones seem barren and dull by comparison. Ideas are tiny and used as a framework for the entire adventure. Is that focus? No that is boring.

There’s another problem in that Barbarians has a lot of potential in terms of infiltrating the city to get rid of the conquistadors or sneaking into the mountaintop fortress but the actual physical locations are threadbare and simplistic, with limited tactical options offset by a single out of the box method to conquer the opponent. It is INFANTILE. This is an INFANTILE way to write adventures.

Does anyone remember Temple of the Frog? Do you remember all the different patrol schedules, hidden allies, secret entrances, the offloading of cargo, all these components that clever players could potentially use, with no fixed method of going about it? That’s DnD at its greatest. Emergent gameplay. Barbarians is fixed gameplay. All the different diplomatic possibilities are already mapped out, because they are so simple. Doom versus Call of Duty.

In summary, this adventure is perfectly runneable so if you are looking for mediocre science fantasy adventuring that won’t overly tax, scare or challenge your players this will be exactly what you are looking for. The Great Kowolski shits the bed. I weep for the future. **

EDIT: As it has been courteously explained to me, this was an editing decision. Frustrating but not the fault of the author.

 

 


24 thoughts on “[Review] Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas (Lotfp); Kowolski shits the Bed

    1. If you haven’t checked out any of the Monstrous Arcana series I HIGHLY recommend them. Good, solid, ambitious stuff. Ignore the first outing of the Illithid series, its a huge piece of shit. Everything else, GOLDEN. The Sahuagin series too. Awesome, mind-blowing stuff from Cordell in his prime.

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  1. Shame. I remember feeling similarly disappointed with the opponents in the Demonweb (Q1): gnolls, bugbears, ogres, zombies, ghasts and minotaurs, mundane monsters you fought all the time when it should have been alien and demonic, full of deception and horror.
    I recently picked up Kelvin Green’s latest, Midvinter, and it seems more promising from a quick scan. Can you be tempted to do a review?

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    1. Another Kelvin Green one? I’ve got some donations to work through so it might be a while. Since it’s Lotfp I can bump it up my list.

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  2. You know I really get a lot out of reading these more negative reviews. Not in the watching you take the piss out of a guy, but because you care enough to point out what’s wrong and how to fix it. Quality negative feedback, and something everyone should be looking at when they put something out. I know I used these when writing my own shitty little adventures and game material. On point as usual Prince

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I was a little stumped by this one. On paper it should have worked at least structurally and I wouldn’t be super pissed off if a GM just ran this but for a written module it just didn’t grip me. I wasn’t sold if you will.

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      1. Anytime dude. It lacked the spark then, if you will. I get that. Sometimes shit just doesn’t pop, but I guess you have to wonder if its better to phone it in, or not put out something you don’t believe in

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  3. You really nailed what I didn’t like about this one. It was hard to puzzle out because, as you say, there are some solid fundamentals. But it’s boring, lacking in details and it squanders a gonzo premise. Honestly, that was my complaint about GTFO. I think you were easy on that one because you were hoping an adventure like this would really deliver on the premise.

    I think people don’t really understand creativity. I think many people have at least one really cool idea in them, one really solid “album.” But not many people have two, fewer have three, and enough ideas for a whole career in a creative field is vanishingly rare. Plus the alchemy you need to extract that idea from your brain, the proper enthusiasm and inspiration, is hard to control. It’s not entirely fair to expect anyone to keep churning out good original ideas.

    What I’m saying is that we should just be happy with Levnec and Babies, and if Kowolski ever gives us anything even close to the quality of those two adventures, we should be very grateful. His heart doesn’t seem into his latest efforts and you can’t bleed a stone.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Ray,

      I don’t think I was too easy on GTFO, it had enough detail, sticky moments, pizazz and high concept to justify its sub 10 page length, though I did take the potential into account. Under my new scale, *** is fine. Barbarians kind of blows my mind because it has all the components it needs but its just not convincing.

      I’m with you on creativity but I am not with you on unfair expectations. I’m not asking for someone to re-invent the field of DnD but I do expect them to be awake while they write something. Not that creative? Find out what your strengths are and use that to your advantage. Read weird source material. Look up brainstorming techniques. If that doesn’t work, why is he still churning out work?

      I’ll grant Kowolski was definitely asleep at the wheel for this outing but he seemed to be awake for most of Punchline. I hate it that he is starting to adopt the Zak style ironic disdain to compensate for lack of enthusiasm. I’ll have to check out his NCGR stuff if I want to get my Kowolski fix then.

      Fuck Palace is almost…almost done…

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      1. Well, you know what a softie I am. But I’m not trying to say that you’re being too hard on Zzarchov here. Not at all. Just speaking more generally. I read a good article today that gently described what was wrong with the new Star Wars movies, and it made me reflect on the Rage of the Fanboys and how silly and entitled people can get when creative works don’t live up to their expectations. No, this review is on point.

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  4. Man, I hate it when you see the potential of an adventure, the promise and the excitement it could generate … and it simply falls flat. This is worse than simply reading a bad adventure :/
    But as Edgewise said …can’t expect the dude to only produce the good stuff all the time.

    And with the whole Zak-Lotfp affair still making waves in certain circles (also thanks to the good lord Rients) Lamentations suffers more and more. Who remains at Raggis side? Any good authors still over there?

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  5. This actually popped up in my alerts, because I did set one for this title.

    For whatever reason the stats and extended write-ups for the NPC’s, monsters, and treasures at the end was cut. I assume printing concerns. I normally avoid griping, but I got stuck with writing out LotFP stats for the difference between a mammoth and a mastadon beyond a snide reference so that is the one gripe I’ll give to the process.

    Definitely low on the wonder, which isn’t an accident and is intentional, but you gotta admit the cover is incredibly cool.

    I generally avoid commenting on reviews as a matter of politeness to the reviewer, but I don’t want people to think I was too lazy to write stats.

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    1. Hail Great Zzarchov,

      I respect your Kevin Crawford-esque detachment in this matter. Here’s hoping you get out of this Realism phase every artist goes through at some dark point in their lives and get back to your usual batshit insane high concept postmodernist stuff.

      Thank you for all of your other contributions, which did not suck and which were occasionally very good.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I haven’t read this, but also love the cover art!

      As an author who has many fans not always pleased, take comfort in the fact that no one is perfect. I’ve put out a couple duds in my time, and hearing their criticism only makes me work harder.

      VS

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  6. You know, I’m not even that religious, but I do love the Idea of the missionary.

    The idea of someone wanting to spread his idea of comfort to others by passing through hostile environments is an idea I enjoy exploring.

    On the product:
    I find it interesting that we keep getting Neanderthals as our go to for “taken away to another Earth”,but I have never seen Habilis,Erectus, or Florensiensis. Just a passing thought.

    The bestiary seems very tame.Do we not get any Bog preserved-Neaderthal-mummies in this?

    Is the landscape really interesting at least? Does it provoke something?

    Besides that, I literally have no other opinion to add to this. It just seems bland for a LOTFP product.

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  7. I feel, and this is coming from a fan of many LotFP products, that the chickens may be coming home to roost in terms of the milieu.

    It has always been explicitly realistic, historical, low-magic, humanocentric, etc. That’s all well and good, and I am the last guy to decry anyone’s personal snowflake setting. HOWEVER

    Maybe if you beat that drum hard enough, over a long period of time, you end up with material that feels mundane, instead of wondrous and exciting?

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    1. I respectfully disagree with your assesment of Lotfp. The problem with Lotfp is that its never actually been what it is was supposed to be about. With the possible exception of Death Frost Doom, the vast majority of its standout work like Carcosa, Veins of the Earth, Red and Pleasant Land, Towers Two and whatever other Ennie winning tripe Lotfp managed to rake in has not conformed to its stated low historical, weird-ish premise.

      Even Raggi himself could barely be bothered to abide by the themes of his own line and the last couple of years all he made were shitposts designed as modules.

      Lotfp is and always has been an aesthetic, a fad if you will, held together by talented authors, a drive to experiment and a quixotic desire to reject convention. The problem is that, as Ray pointed out, constant innovation is incredibly hard to sustain unless you have a constant influx of talented, visionary authors and as reality has demonstrated, this as not the case.

      I don’t think material that conforms to the line’s stated premise must of necessity be boring, BtAM and God that Crawls were fine modules, but I suspect it takes more discipline and talent to make an exiciting module in a historical adventure since the writer is under greater constraint.

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      1. Historical settings are hard to do – they demand a lot of the designers and the GMs. Ideally, well-designed historical gaming works do a lot of heavy lifting to help GMs who know very little about the time period (without overwhelming them). Perfect realism isn’t necessary, but if you’re not going to try for believability, why bother with history?

        Low fantasy is hard to do – magic is fun, and it makes it very easy for the GM to be imaginative. Low fantasy requires a lot of restraint to keep magic from suffusing every aspect of play. You have to come up with lots of interesting plots about bandits, scheming nobles and priests with secrets, saving the demons and zombies for special occasions.

        Dark fantasy can be hard to do – it’s hard to maintain an atmosphere of dread without making every adventure a screw-you affair. Plenty of Lamentations adventures erred on the screw-you side of things, but that’s on-brand – it’s edgy as fuck to reward the party with three chests of copper coins painted to look like gold and an alien parasite that will hatch and consume them in 1d6 game months.

        The fact that they pulled off so much for so long is pretty damn impressive. And the book isn’t closed – I think there’s plenty of life in Kowolski yet, for example. This one might have been a bit bland for me, but it’s not shitty. Just very inessential.

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      2. There is a lot of potential in low magic semi-historical settings; after all, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is essentially renaissance continental Europe with cultists and beastmen thrown in. There are advantages: players are basically familiar with the setting without copious background reading; you don’t need to worry about the implications that meteor swarms, disintegrate and passwall spells have for military campaigns, or even the humble charm person being cast on major figures. However I think you do need to think about some different adventure themes. War is an obvious one, and Better than Any Man takes good advantage. But how many adventures have been written about the aftermath of a conflict, with carpetbaggers moving in, returning defeated solders? And what of political adventures? WFRP has produced the excellent Power Behind the Throne (although that is tough to referee); Edge of Night has a potentially interesting plot line, but the political strand plays second fiddle to the skaven scheme. And what about criminal activities, a gang warfare along the lines of the Godfather/The White Devil?

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      3. I don’t disagree with what all a y’all are sayin (I mean I reviewed WHF, and fucking Avalanche and I love grimdark shit) but what I am getting at is not that the aforementioned genres are unworkable, I mean they are absolutely viable, but that they don’t seem to mesh with all of Lotfp’s standout work, which has been almost exclusively Weird with a capital W or new Weird with an even bigger capital W (Artpunk doesn’t exist).

        My Point is that all these creative authors, with the odd exception of J.Raggu had a weird unique style that doesn’t really seem to mesh very well with low-fantasy, historical adventure, hence the possibly akward transition.

        I don’t think Kowolski is done by any stretch of the imagination but I stand by my point that this module suxx. As for the future, we shall see (but I will observe Lotfp has not been putting out the type of critically acclaimed hipster bait it is famed and loved for since…Veins?).

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      4. I agree with your general point, but just felt it worth pointing out if authors were prepared to dial back the weirdness a bit, there are almost untouched adventure themes ripe for exploiting. I’d add rebellions (with the PCs free to help either side, or just trying to profit and get out), or riffing off the Scarlet Pimpernel or Guy Fawkes. And if you wanted a twist,maybe you are summoning a demon under parliament, or playing Citizen Chauvelin.
        Of Kowolski’s material, I really liked Thulian Echoes and Scenic Dunnsmouth for their innovation. But Edgewise is quite correct to note how difficult it is to churn out one original masterpiece after another (in any field). As regards this particular effort, you seem to have nailed what is wrong with it, why it doesn’t fizz.
        Kelvin Green’s stuff seems to be of the WFRP/Call of Cthulhu flavour, with his latest, Midvinter, an inverse Wicker Man. (You are being tricked to turn up and slaughter people.) I imagine someone could have fun with a homage to Hammer House of Horror movies.
        What LofP may be lacking is talented authors to do justice to these ideas. Some of the people visiting this site do super stuff (the most exciting material that is being produced at the moment in my estimation), but do they have the time and inclination?

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      5. Both sided here have fair and good points 🙂

        True, there is much potential in using “mundane” and historical situations and putting the weird into them.
        One LotFP Adventure that stuck with me was “Grudge Immortal” … You play passengers and sailors on a portugese galley that lands in an japanese harbor somewhere between 1500 and 1600 as I recall. Then you hear rumors of a strange island nearby where little pieces of ornamented silver have been found … and you go to investigate.
        Though even here one could argue, that the eastern setting and heavy focus on japanese myths is a foreign and strange thing to our western knowledge…

        “Some of the people visiting this site do super stuff (the most exciting material that is being produced at the moment in my estimation), but do they have the time and inclination?”

        So come on Prince … ditch your Palace project, don the helmet of doublethink and the bloddy cape of shifting principles and jump to LotFPs rescue 😉

        I would do it of course … but some guy named Malrex was quicker in recruiting me for his evil, world dominating scheme 😛

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