[Review] Veins of the Earth Pt. III (Lotfp); Descent

And so we reach the bottom.

The most important part of Veins, besides the bestiary which communicates mood, is its random cavern generation system. This is arguably, where the true value of Veins should be found.

There is an elaborate list of possible entrances that is well done. In the wake of a giant monster, behind the throne of the bottom dungeon floor, you get Iocounou’d under the earth, you escape from hell and end up in the Veins etc. etc. Good shit.

Cave system generation is abstract but functional, although the layout is its worst enemy. I found myself constantly skimming back thinking I had missed something. Single caverns are effectively abstracted as diagonal cubes, with the top and bottom corners serving as indicators for the top and bottom directions.  Number of connections between different caves are generated randomly, as is cave size, so you end up with something like a point crawl or a little hub or rooms with one feature, a size (e.g. house room, office building, 4 rooms etc.) possibly an occupant etc, with entrance and exit predetermined and additional exits of increasingly narrow width placed at discretion. Distance is often abstracted so you end up with something that sort of maybe works but is not a proper three-dimensional map, which is a shame.

Cave size is determined by the distance of the two dice you roll on the piece of paper, a Vornheimian irritant of design that leaves probability distribution to the vagueries of brownian motion and individual variance that I hope will die a much deserved death. Just roll dice.

There’s a nice vertical component in the form of bottom exits but the abstract nature of the system makes everything feel airy and almost formulaic? There’s a sort of symmetry  imposed on each cave system that largely prevents the sort of organic exploration that makes dungeoneering interesting, with double-backs, secret doors, natural hazards etc. To the system’s credit, the variations in passageways means you will have things like squeezes, flooded passageways, partially collapsed tunnels etc. It probably plays a lot better then it reads.

Each Cave system is given a random designation and an attribute in the form of a Positive and a Negative Statement to differentiate them (i.e. The Sulphuric Blooms of The Eyeslicers ALWAYS hides Exits in the floor but NEVER stops moaning and howling). If is pared with the d100 paragraphs of bizarre cavern descriptions you can keep it going for quite a while before any repetition sets in.

The ghost of a mighty forest. Its inverse shape. Lava swept over gigantic trees and cooled fast. The trees rotted leaving basalt in a tree-mold shape. That chunk of land fell into the earth. In real terms: tall, thin vertical caves in black rock. Linked by numerous crawl-passages right at the top in every direction (and possibly the roots below).

Men, or natural forces, have smashed through empty stone hexagonal cells. An ancient hive of dog-sized wasps. Walls and roof and floor still show the steady grid of larval beds. Some closed caps conceal amberised grubs. The floor is crunchythick with stone mandible fragments, translucent limestone tracery wings and blunted stings.

Surreal. Beautiful. Alien. They are all like this.

The overland (underland?) method for generating the massive passageways that these cave systems branch out into is less impressive. It is made for quick generation (why? it will sustain multiple, if not dozens of sessions, so why rush it?) and vertical components are added by folding the map, enforcing a type of symmetry. The age old problem of three-dimensional mapping is not solved but bypassed, with some legerdermain to add a vertical component. Different types of systems have different attributes (i.e. an underground river is presented as a straight line whereas an old mega structure is a series of tiered vertical wheels that the new mapping system struggles to portray. The idea is that you can either quick-travel along these pathways on the underworld map or if you want to get off the route you travel through each hex, generating cave systems as you go, one for each hex.

There’s a few counter-intuitive things about this system, the first of which being that you can effectively travel from any point in the Veins to any other point. It’s a cave system. That doesn’t make sense. This entire overland portion, while having some creative or evocative structures is a giant stop-gap solution that tackles the problems normally associated with these sorts of complex 3D formations with ad-hoc one-off solutions. Maps in 3D? SORT OF. Underland Map? SAME AS THE OVERLAND MAP HAR HAR HAR. It doesn’t really give you the tools to create a vast underground webwork of caverns, it gives you a system that sort of mimics it. Its the system that you put in place BEFORE you start refining. It does have the distinction of being THE ONLY SYSTEM TO HAVE ATTEMPTED TO DO CAVES ON THIS SCALE. So is it the definitive cave generation system? Fuck no. But as a placeholder for Cavebox campaigns it sure as hell beats anything that came before.

This section is a metaphor for Caves as a whole. It is 6/10ths of the best Cave sandbox supplement ever made. On the one hand it tackles the material with a depth and a creativity that is unheard of, on the other hand it is haphazard and uneven in how it works it all out or ties it all together. 6/10ths in the Dopamine runs out.

Praise Kossuth that there is an example system generated in the back of the book.

The rest is assorted fluff and subsystems, some genius, some fluff, and some poorly thought out. The d100 loot table is fine, exactly what it needed to be, little treasures to be found and generated quickly: A chunky brass cylindrical finger ring. Actually a silent and reliable clock that pricks the wearer’s finger each hour.

There is a vast list of 100 art found on the Civilopede that probably outlines why games should not be art. An incredibly niche location filled with items with comparatively little impact on the game.

19. THE VAST CROCODILE
AntiPainting, by Margaret Greatorex
Darklight image in occultum-stained paint, eats light and infests darkness, visible as
a stain inside the eye. A gigantic albino crocodile surges out of the water of an underground river. On its back rides an imperial blind Salamander-Man, surrounded by fawning sycophants in the forms of animals and spirits. (Almost certainly cheap allegory, no Olm would ever make this.) 

And now we see the problem of the artist as game-designer and the true allegiance of Patrick Stuart. All of these items are fascinating but they are treated as art objects and so the focus is on them being compelling or beautiful and not on how they affect the gameplay. A waste. Beautiful writing and fluff have their place in DnD but they must always be accompanied by crunch or they are vestigial, patterns traced in sand. Aery gibberish. There’s a 100 of these things. You could have made 100 magic items instead. Now we have like…20ish sort-of magic items and the rest is just art. Perfect for a blog post. Terrible here because it could have contained something else. Too peripheral.

Spells. Spells are damn fine. Magic that allows you to take the form of a piercer, turn your blood into a rope, allows you to move through calcite formations as though it were foliage, talk to the wind, create dreams and some spells that are bizarre and otherwordly, like the Aelf-Aedal Dream Venom spell that causes your dream self to become increasingly ill and malformed (no effect in the waking world), summon a vampiric lawyer or a Knotsmen spell that allows you to animate the brain of a slave. It’s thematic, ties into the new rules and environments that were described and damn cool.

There’s a little extra rule system about food that begins with an important explanation of food in the veins, namely, that its like the Deep Sea so everyone is perpetually starving,  and then does a major overhaul on the food encumbrance system. The rationale is that essentially, you consume about 6000 calories a day rock-climbing, and a normal expedition would require massive logistical support for people to go caving for even a short period of time. To reflect this, food is monstrously expensive (100 sp per day?) and takes a full SEGMENT of your encumberance if you want to bring it along. Not eating for days lands you into Starving and Starving To Death territory pretty quickly, meaning you will lose a level for each day unless you eat something…anything. 8 days to starve to death is pretty extreme but it does hammer in the brutal nature of life underground. There’s a good hypothermia rule tucked in there too.

Another VERY GOOD addition, there’s a sort of soft-mutation table that you roll on if your character is exposed to certain stimuli (like having to wander in the dark desperately looking for light, the first time they eat human flesh, the first time they fall in the dark etc. etc.). This is an EXCELLENT table, with effects like extreme paranoia (you can’t get xp until one of your party members tells you what he has been hiding from you), your fingers lengthening, your senses altering or a type of insanity (your ropes count as companions and have morale now, you compulsively sharpen your teeth). Excellent addition, a sort of deep psychosis that hammers home the difference between the world of the Veins and the world of the surface.

There’s a smattering of tables or knotsmen glyphs that we have not covered but we’ve covered enough. Veins is, or should be, divisive. On the one hand its bestiary is undeniably brilliant, it seeks to tackle its subject matter with a depth and a creativity that is unprecedented and there are many fine sub-systems and rules to be found within the corners of its pages. On the other hand it suffers from the toolkit approach, its rules feel more like a grab bag then an all-encompassing Crawford-esque treatment of the subject, its cavern generation system is sufficient but somewhat shamefully ad-hoc and it spends more time convincing you its pretty then its useful. The end result is something that is good, certainly, but not the second coming of under-christ that it promised itself it would be.

Overal, Veins is an at times fascinating at times heartrendingly lacklustre essay into the world of the Underdark. Despite its many inimitable qualities, there is something missing. The end result is something lesser then the sum of its parts. Check it out if you are interested in the subject matter but for goddsake don’t buy the harcover.

***


13 thoughts on “[Review] Veins of the Earth Pt. III (Lotfp); Descent

  1. I always think of the derro blog post when I think of the veins. A brilliant and evocative vignette that reqlly gets the juices flowing but takes herculean effort to make into a playable encounter.

    I remember coins and scrolls took several posts, investigations, thesis statements and deep thoughts on gameplay to figure out how to actually run derro. Then with a single twitter post, stupat rejected him and cast skerples into the abyss, condemning what could have been a valuable commentary on how to actually run veins into obscurity.

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    1. I think the blame should be cast on the toolkit approach and its loathsome adherents. Good sandbox systems (ah la Crawford) are comprehensive, with interlocking parts, each one complementing the other and feeding into the next. Stuart makes it clear his book is meant to be a grabbag of rules and systems that may be inserted into one’s home campaign willy nilly without any particular preference. The result is not a system but a wildgrowth of individually interesting parts, occasionally sloppily executed, whose key to a harmonious operation exists somewhere in theoretical null-space because it was never used rigorously over a period of time to allow it to congeal and it lacks an underlying philosophy.

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      1. [Toolkits]
        I think you’re right that the toolkit approach is ultimately to blame. I suspect the toolkit approach is favored because it’s easy to turn a series of blog posts into a book if it’s a toolkit.

        Reminds me of my younger and naive days when I was excited by vornheim, tried to run it twice with disastrous results, tried to include tables from it with universally disastrous results and eventually realized I had fallen for hype. A consistent player gripe was that things “just sorta happen” with no reason and one player described vornheim as “profoundly alienating.”

        The mismatch might be in these books presenting as setting books when they can’t really be used that way without large amounts of work.

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      2. I suspect the toolkit is favored because it is both A) easier to convert blog and B) you evade responsibility under the guise of do-it-yourself. Every GM is going to adapt these rules to their own group dontchaknow, so it doesn’t matter if the starting condition is rickety, says the smart boy. In fact if its broken that only makes it more likely the GM will adjust them. O$R4L1F3!

        Vornheim I would rate lower now, probably **. The problem with Zak’s settings is that they are paper thin fascimiles of atmosphere and mood and a handful of concepts put over the audience in order to trick them into thinking they are playing a setting. Red and Pleasant Land perhaps has the best compensatory mechanism, its very setting meant to be a place that does not make sense. I am always baffled when people say Vornheim was the best thing ever. What did they like? Maaaaybe the street generation procedures?

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  2. Real quick, I keep seeing Radiation damage in the book, where do I go to see how that works out on characters?

    I enjoy this product as a whole,but now that you’ve brought subject up, how would you go about a good cave system? Especially in a less complicated rule system?

    Also,congratulations on getting 3K on the product. I can’t wait to get it, so with that being said, can your ethereal manifestations stop turning my dreams into nightmares?

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    1. I think radiation is the type of damage, much like fire damage, it doesn’t have any additional systems beyond that, it’s a tag meant to clarify whether something would be affected by it or not I think.

      I don’t know enough about Caving, Patrick did about 100 times the research I have done. I like the approach of having “main arteries” like rivers or impact craters but I dislike the ability to move “freely” on the map using caves. On an overland map you have rivers, mountains, different types of terrain etc. serving as natural barriers and generating a sort of internal logic. The genius of something like the Karameikos map for mystara is that it can be used for overland exploration or an entire military campaign and these natural barriers enforce a sort of logic upon the course of the players. I’d maintain the terrain differentiation of main-artery, which functions as a sort of “road”, add a difficult terrain “signifier” for branching cavernous systems and very importantly, if an overland map has impassible terrain, a cave system should have it more so. Impenetrable is the name of the game. Maybe implement some sort of Crawford-esque FTL type travel system where there are passages between different hexes but they must either be found via a guide, bought or you need some special property (i..e the ability to breathe chlorine gas) in order to make use of them.

      The 3-D problem is difficult to solve. Maybe create mulitiple overland maps, but that quickly becomes a shitshow, although it does reinforce the notion of the Underdark as a gigantic, continent spanning dungeon map. It’s an interesting problem. I am not saying I could neccessarily do a better job, I am calling out an ad-hoc solution when I see one.

      Thank you for your congratulations r.e. Palace Kickstarter. Unfortunately, the nightmares will only increase as Uyu-Yadmogh gains strength. Sorry.

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  3. Patrick is a good friend of mine so I am not able to hold an unbiased opinion, and I don’t agree with your conclusions, but you deserve kudos for writing an excellent and informative review all the same. We need more of this.

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    1. High praise, thank you. I consider a review to be a success if someone can figure out if they would like it or not, regardless of whether they agree with me. People had the same response with my Fire on the Velvet Horizon review.

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