Veins of the Earth (2017)
Patrick Stuart & Scrapprincess (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Here we are at last. The ultimate craft meets its ultimate practitioner. For years I have waded through all the creations, terrible and sublime, that Lotfp could throw at me. I have seen wonders that would not believe. I have witnessed boredom and banality that would scar your sensibilities. Now at last I am ready to grapple with their sublime achievement.
Veins of the Earth is the Underdark, extrapolated, distilled and recast. Stripped of familiar trappings, Stuart and Scrapprincess endaevour to show us the essence of the Underdark, the platonic ideal, in a way that the traditional Underdark, burdened by decades of familarity, metaplot and pop-culture, no longer can. Deep time, fringe biology, paleontology and science-fiction are mixed with the distilled essences of D&D to produce an alloy of strange and wondrous property.
Where to begin? The first and arguably most important part of VotE is its Bestiary. It has long been my contention that nothing serves to define a campaign setting so much as the creatures that inhabit it and Stuart & Scrap deliver for us 150 pages worth of monstrosities of the Utter Depths. Gone is the creative but somewhat meandering efforts of Fire on the Velvet Horizon.
Instead the limited scope provides a laser-focus, the creatures all the more terrifying and bizarre for it, Patrick’s at times flowery prose has expanded to encompass entire geologic lexicons yet is simultaneously trimmed down in length to J.M. Harrisonian levels of zen-master poetry, each sentence a fucking koan, Scrap’s scribbly efforts, often scornfully derided on this blog, have emerged from their cocoon to reveal the aeons-old otherworldly horrors of the uttermost depths in gorgeous contrast, their abhorrent nature expressed in every primal marker-stroke of deep arterial red, black and royal blue.
THEY COME OUT CRAWLING. They judder and fall like an old man escaping from a crashed car, but fast, like skipping low-res recordings. It leaps but has forgotten how to stand. The shaking steps collapse. The fossilised stone skeleton of a precambrian vampire. Cracked and deranged by its entombment. The skull is twisted in a Munch-Scream warp. The eyes burn with an ancient second night, ultraviolet coronal rings that hang on eclipsed moons. Limbs rolled and bent in sedimentary stones. The ghosts of opalised organs moonwhite in central mass. Shining pyritised teeth. Soil and ash falling from its joints like rain. Utterly totally insane.
The sting of the atomic bee is so deadly that the death it brings briefly outstrips time. Like a gunshot skipping on a lake. Your cells are annihilated at such speed, and with such violence, that you are plunged through nearby wild dimensions as you burn. What this looks like to observers is a victim burning, turning to ash, and being caught in a violent unseen, unfelt wind, all at once as they flickerstop in and out. The wind of your extra-dimensional fall will plaster your ash to a nearby surface. You leave behind Hiroshimascar remains and an agonised radioactive ghost who has briefly seen outside time and space. Communicating with this ghost is incredibly deadly but can supply weird understandings
I remarked at FotVH that it was a job half done. I was right. Making mechanics for your monsters allows you to grant them properties of much greater depth then mere descriptive language allows. Rules describe their place in the fictional eco-system, their place in the order of things, it forces you to consider a thousand factors beyond aesthetic preening. Nowhere is this more apparent then in VoTE’s bestiary. Mechanics are an integral part of the flavor.
Stat blocks are set out in highly readable bullet point format and incorporate two ability scores that will be off immense importance in the utter depths. Nearly all creatures have a climbing score and some might be Blind, which affects how they respond to light-sources in the lightless chasms and pits of the Veins. Important in a lightless place, every creature has a Sound and a Smell.
SOUNDS like a faint sizzle like a fizzy drink. Distant half-musical plinks, like heating metal cooling in the cold
In his introduction Stuart explains his conception of the Veins as something towering and vast, old far beyond human pre-history, much larger then all the countries of human endaevour, and containing creatures strange and powerful beyond mortal reckoning. Nearly every creature in the bestiary reinforces this theme in some way.
Mythological horrors are endowed with bizarre traits from deep cavern biology and prehistory. Everything is ancient, Cambrian-Explosion, Ice-Age, Fungal, annalidian nightmare. The inspiration drawn from the distant and long-extinct corners of the animal kingdom infuses the monsters with an alien feel that cements the Veins as a Lovecraftian place where mankind is only an interloper. Some are possessed of a terrifying versimilitude, like packs of Bioluminescent Dogs or a raptor-like turtle creature whose slow metabolism can be hyper-accelerated but one hour before it must either feed or die. Others are incomprehensible, terrifying extraplanar predators that imitate familiar shapes only to ensnare. The Angler-Lich is such a one, a 2-dimensional caricature of an evil undead necromancer, in actuality merely the extraplanar lure of an extra-cosmic predator that feeds on heroes. The other almost a herron, a monster that attempts to seize and pull men into a hyper-dimension using a hooked simulacrum of its prey.
There are lions dripping with universal solvent, and deep mineral men that live within volcanic vents and harvest the tachyonic honey of Atomic Bees. There are warm-blooded predators too, some merely unnerving like the hyper-mobile Gigaferret, others reminiscent of Deep Time, drawn from Pleistocene Times, Immortal Golems of Mud and Bone raised in a time before speech, or the shamanistic criminals of the Neaderthals, who can tease the spirit animal from your bones, or remake your flesh with a song. There are well-intentioned deep-core visitors of super-heated metal that can destroy you by mere communication. There are collective hallucinations and flying, dreaming whales guarded by their incarnate nightmares. Everything, from nuisance vermin like the Sonic Pig to Hidden Powers that can get you an audience with the Gods, makes an appearance. This is one of the richest bestiaries that I have ever seen.
50 pages in I went to Lotfp.com and made an account to order a hardcover. Unfortunately I would have had to pay 30 bucks in shipping, atop of the 66 bucks. I instead went on dutch amazon and ordered the whole for 58 bucks. Sorry Raggi.
These are great entries executed with perfect attention to usability at the table. Valuable body parts are marked as treasure, beautiful dialogue options are provided if the monster is more likely to interact. Witness here the koans of the Tachyon Troll, who ages backward and forward in time, enlightened to the Tao of Troll by its supra-temporal existence, seeking to consume the PCs with serene content.
“Will you teach me a fire sermon? Or is your path upon my tongue? Your Tao
between my teeth?”
“Do not sorrow for this ripped blood-nugget. Its new home is within me. I anoint
“I am a Throne of Life, consumed and endlessly renewed.”
Veins encompasses a vast spectrum of time, space, and dimension. Creatures are drawn from higher dimensions, the distant past or literally unfathomable depths. Giant Hermit crabs lair in the Skulls of Vanquished Titans, waiting for a distant time beyond time when they can restart the cosmic cycle. Mantis Shrimps co-exist with Fungal Zombies or hordes of the infected, kept alive by the disease that consumes them. Something of the goofyness of Fire on the Velvet Horizon is cushioned by the bizarre coherence of the whole.
At times it is difficult to piece together the meaning behind some of the entries, but always they come together in the end. You will perhaps pause as you ponder the nature of the perpetually phase-transitioning Igneous Wrath or struggle to decipher the riddle of the Ignimbrite Mites. The stellar entries in the beginning mean that the end of the section can feel a little underwhelming but it doesn’t matter.
A good monsters often trigger bouts of creativity and ideas as you read them. Good entries inspire the GM to come up with encounters or adventures or entire campaigns centered around them. Veins does this. My mind is awash with narrow tunnels and soaring chasms, lit by sputtering pin-pricks of lantern-light or vast bioluminescent fungal forests, of mineral gardens tended by alien crystal men so hot the lungs boil. Of predators of condensed moonlight and strata of fossil vampires awakening slowly to rampage through the darkness and the silence. Of the cruel Knotsmen who have offered the souls of their children in exchange for succour from some ancient peril. Of subterrene gardens lit by the deadly but beautiful luminescence of the Ultraviolet Butterfly.
A stellar bestiary. Familiar concepts like Golems or Oozes occasionally turn up to be recast as something bizarre, disturbing and exciting. I could spend hours lovingly going over each entry but we must press on. A fantastic beginning.
Stay tuned for part II.