Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas (2019)
Zzarchov Kowolski (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Levels ??? (1 – 3)
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. 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:
Well spaced out fir trees with large amounts of old growth logs
1 A pack of dire wolves (1d4+1d8)
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.