[Review] Vornheim (Lotfp); Artpunk Ground Zero

[Toolkit]
Vornheim (2011)

Zak S. (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor vornheim


There once was a boy named Timmy. For his 13th birthday Little Timmy could pick one gift from the hobby store. His family was poor but because he had been a good boy his father gave him their one cow to trade in the city and buy whatever game he wanted. Not knowing what to buy, he asked the local parish for guidance and prayed to Jesus Christ. “Jesus,” little Timmy asked. “I don’t ask for much, and the glowing electronic toys of my friends make them slothful and sap their spirits and turn them into drooling bugmen, and there is also some sort of creepy ideological push going on there that, frankly, I don’t much care for. Won’t you please show me the light and recommend a game to me that isn’t a soul-destroying poisonous nightmare swamp?” And that day a gigantic glowing Dodecahedron fell from the sky and obliterated his squalid hovel and the surrounding 20 miles in a fifty megaton thermonuclear explosion, sparing only himself and the cow, which for convenience and narrative flow’s sake, was instantly converted into gold pieces.
After careful consideration of this momentous omen, Little Timmy decided that most of all, he wanted to buy a roleplaying game called Dungeons & Dragons, for he had always enjoyed fantastical adventures when he was but a boy, and only this way could he relive those fantasies while keeping his mind sharp and his spirit up. 
But on his way to the gaming store, there it was! Gleaming 20-sided in the distance! he had to walk through the artisans quarter, which was very dangerous and dirty. A fetid reek of vanilla-scented vape, unwashed flesh and stale bongwater assaulted his senses, and blaring punk rock assailed his ears. “Hey kid, where ya off too.” He stopped, turned around to behold, in some midnight-shrouded alley, an unmarked van with its portals just peeking over.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
“Come closer boy,” a grating, inebriated voice croaked from behind the unmarked van.
And little Timmy stepped forward, into the dark alley, for Jesus had always told him to be brave, and to have pity on strangers and to be polite.
From behind the van emerged three figures. One was hulking and unshaven, dressed only in a sodden trenchcoat, a beret and Trotsky glasses, his beardless face disfigured with piercings and tattoos and his chin soft and amorphous. One was a woman, well-proportioned but greasy, whatever natural endowments she possessed drowned out beneath a torrent of indiscriminate make-up and a general air of slovenly neglect. She was garbed in a Che Guevara T-shirt with a ketchup stain on it and smelled overpoweringly of Marlboros. They were dwarfed by their leader, a skinny, rat-faced man with a purple Mohawk, soft lips and eyeliner wearing a mesh tank-top.
The Mohawk lit up and blew cigarette smoke in Timmy’s face.  
“Where ya off too kid?”
“Well jeez Mr.,” said Timmy unabashed through a coughing fit. “I was just heading out to use the proceeds from selling Bessy to buy myself a Dungeons & Dragons.”
“Dungeons & Dragons?” the trenchcoat snarled, immediately on edge and reaching for a bicycle lock. “Don’t you know that Dungeons & Dragons is responsible for killing millions of underpriveliged minorities trough structural violence and contributes directly to the rise of white supremacy in our postwestern civilization?”
The Mohawk rolled his eyes and silenced him with a gesture. “That’s pretty cool kid,” he said. “I liked that game a lot when I was very young. That’s an okay game if you are a child.”
Timmy’s eyes grew. He wasn’t a child anymore, according to the ultra-biblical creed his prepper parents had homeschooled him with, he was a full-grown man and ready to do his duty and die for Jesus in glorious combat. “Well gosh sir,” he said, disappointed. “I always thought D&D was a game for all ages.”
The Mohawk gave him a knowing smirk and offered him a cigarette. “Listen kid, you wanna get ahead in life, you gotta be cool, and in order to be cool, you can’t be seen playing those lame children’s games anymore. RPGs are hip now. You gotta get with the program. You gotta play the Artpunk. Dragons? Dragons are 2019. It’s the current year. Why don’t you step into my van and I will show you something really cool.”
“Well gee Mr.,” little Timmy said. “That’s, that’s mighty kind of you. Artpunk you said? Boy those are some colourful covers. They sure look like kind of weird but also very creative. What will they cost me?”
The Mohawk closed the door of the Van behind him. His gaze fixed on infinity and was endowed with the hardness of cut glass. His voice became flat, crisp and cold like the vacuum of intergalactic space.
“Everything.”


The Artpunk is rising. After Lotfp was dealt a grievous hit under the water-line and took on water, the adherents of this terrible creed emerged filth-spattered from all of its nooks and crannies and leapt into the ocean, to search for greener pastures to infest. In its wake follow Troika, and now Mörk Börg, and with each iteration we see an inexorable decline in gameability, depth, substance and thematic fealty in favor of gorgeous presentation, posturing and off-the-wall hair-brained ideas. They will not rest until every coffee table has a copy of Mörk Börg and you can’t walk into a Starbucks without a heated discussions on the postcolonial constructivism in Fronds of Benevolence. Indeed, something must simply be done. And who but to do it but Prince?

If we want to examine Artpunk in order to illustrate its strengths and weaknesses and the historical inevitability of its defeat we need look no farther then Vornheim as it effectively encapsulates all of them and the entire catalog of Artpunk that came afterward is basically a derivative of it. Yes I mean that more or less sincerely.

Vornheim is a 75 page toolkit, that most quixotic of supplements, not-quite-city crawl, not quite campaign setting but a curiosity, forged in the dawn of the dreaded Zak’s career and infused with all of the nervous, starry eyed energy of his early years. It is, to put it in his own words: “[]… less about floorplans, major NPCs, and conspiracies that threaten to annihilate all the civilized nations of the earth and more about ways to quickly and easily generate floorplans, major NPCs, and conspiracies that threaten to annihilate all the civilized nations of the earth in the middle of a session while the players are breathing down your neck waiting for you to tell them what’s going on.”

First off; Good topic. City-crawling is a regular feature in D&D campaigns but unlike Hex or Dungeon Crawling it doesn’t really have an established format or procedures, so everything from linear railroads to City of the Invincible Overlord Style settings where every street and NPC is detailed flies.

Before we continue, we must consider that Vornheim enjoyed considerable success, and indeed continues to do so to this day (just check out the Lotfp top sellers!), and it is not hard to see why. In an age of shitty cobbled together word docs that were still in the midst of re-discovering and reaffirming the wonder of the olden days, offset against glossy corporate tomes filled with sterile dungeonpunk art here comes Vornheim, garbed in fearsome Black Sabbath album covers, with cannibal elves and corroding towers protruding from an endless icy waste like the rotting fingers of some great hideous god and unique monsters on every page, to sweep away all that has come before in a torrent of pose and panache. Nowhere do we see the criminally large margins of the bloated latter day Lotfp, instead every square inch is dotted with highly readable font, indexed, paragraphed and it all looks like something you could put on a coffee table or show to your fellows. This isn’t your grandfather’s D&D. It has, undeniably, style.

On a plain near the town of Olgrave two great armies stand enmeshed and unmoving in a white web, held unchanging in the midst of mutual slaughter. The forces of the mad wizard Gorth and a hybrid band of desperate allies scraped together to oppose him have faced each other thus for 4,000 years. One day the white strands will fray, the battle will continue, and the ancient forces of Gorth the Unfathomable will once more seek to maraud, to devastate, and to overthrow

Vornheim’s central problem is that once the initial Störm und Dräng has worn off and the band gets halfway through their repertoire there seems little to fall back on. Each individual component does not contribute harmoniously to the stated goal but instead gets mired in quirky one-off systems, fluff, rules to speed up trivial obstacles and a curious reluctance to commit.

Vornheim can be divided into three parts. The first one concerns itself with communicating the general nature of Vornheim to you, the unwashed reader, so that he may create his own Vornheim with Blackjack and Hookers [1]. The reasoning is based on an extrapolation of common OSR wisdom, that a plethora of setting detail serves more to ultimately hinder then to aid the suffering GM, but the resulting approach goes beyond into dirty postmodernist territory.

The surrounding area is described in mere paragraphs, each containing a fine atmospheric kernel to spark the imagination. The style is uncharacteristically difficult to parse [2], but appears to be a mutant crossbreed of Harrison’s Viriconium and Peake’s Ghormenghast [3] as applied to D&D and jolly good for you. The entire Gazzeteer is very much soft, you will not find definitive neighbourhoods, population figures, factions and even major landmarks are buried in a mesh of Heisenbergian Uncertainty, the more defined a feature, the less defined its location, so as to facilitate its placement during play.

The end result is that you come away from Vornheim knowing a few crucial details that help you set the tone of the place, as well as a few hooks that contribute positively to making it feel distinct but most of it is inert blank space, to be filled up with the random tables in the back of the book. A god of rust (Vorn) and a god of all flesh with fine evocative names take up less space then this paragraph so you come away with it thinking ah, clerics of Vorn may only use edged weapons, how rebellious and then tittering to yourself but no firm Foundation underlying the damn thing.

 Well and good, say I, but if there are no major factions, NPCs, fleshed out dungeons, equipment lists or City of the Overlord levels of detail with every street mapped out, what then is there?

There are several good elements that are memorable and a mountain of details that drive home the atmosphere but little else. The existence of a Wyvern in a Well that answers any single question for each person for example is directly gameable and interesting. There’s two festivals that can serve as springboards for adventure creation, snakes are books (the various implementations of this fact are discussed and credit where it is due, actual rules for books are introduced later). I could probably bury you with at least fifteen different ideas that are quirky, baroque and atmospheric but that don’t really transform into something gameable.

Almost with reluctance, Vornheim goes into a few unique, almost Melviellian monsters like the Hollow Brides or the assassin-homonculi of the Chain, or the demonic Ring Wolf, but these are not provided with statts, despite the fact that Vornheim’s ultra-shorthand statt blocks are actually very readable. It is a bestiary, above many other things, that establishes the nature of a setting. It helps that later on Vornheim does provide a list of hooks/encounters to help you transform all this fluff into something resembling crunch.

A messenger in livery staggers out of an alley bleeding and drops dead at the PC’s feet holding a message for powerful alewife Dolphia Sternborg concerning a caravan containing a massive shipment of hops (held up during a detour through the Spine mountains). If the PCs do nothing, the price of beer and ale quickly spikes to 50 gp and panic spreads

Merchant recognizes martial and battle-scarred bearing of PCs and quietly offers them battered but functional siege tower in working condition concealed in warehouse a few blocks away for only 300 gp.

A PC begins to hear whispers whenever s/he is outside. These whispers are from one of the 10,000 wind gods. He is trapped in the Library, Zoo, Eshrigel’s House, or somewhere else in the city by a powerful NPC. The god wants to be freed and, to this end, will give the PC advice or directions necessary to free him. He may only whisper one word every 10 minutes though.

Adventures begin in the middle and are curious. In a mixed supplement you expect sample adventures to sort of illustrate the way certain sub-systems are used or how it comes together but instead each is centred around a single idea, and filled to the brim with unique weirdness, but several principles of sound dungeon design are left on the cutting room floor. The problem is that much of the creativity is buried in superficial elements. The reason most dungeons incorporate such elements as traps, random encounters, concealed treasure, factions, difficult terrain etc. etc. is that these elements in general will produce decent dungeons and provide myriad challenges for the players to balance. Reducing this to a few core elements can emphasize artistic vision but render the whole too simple or limited and is an error that you see among beginners.   

The second recurring feature is the illegible maps. Even the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, which uses a mercifully conventional (for Vornheim) isometric view, the lack of a grid makes it hard to do proper time-keeping etc. etc. The rest is some freakish hybrid of horizontal and vertical view, which can be tortuously puzzled out. It’s something that looks cool but is to the detriment of useability.

There is an odd sense of the weird and the disconnect to each adventure. Rather then function as expressions of what has been outlined before, each operates as its own, unique, confounding puzzle peace. Perhaps that appeals to you.

In order;

House of the Medusa (1 – 4)

The house of one of the legendary 12 medusa’s and more of an adventure location, this one is 4 pages. It is not clearly stated what the use is for but the most straightforward approach appears to be some sort of burglarly or search for petrified, albeit nonspecified prisoners. There’s a decent mixture of magical countermeasures, a unique guardian (the plasmic ghoul), the medusa herself, a cursed dictionary and that’s about all she wrote. Treasure is manor furnishings, not bad but unremarkable, although this one does add the odd concealment and complication (the piano is too heavy, dealers will know where Eshregel’s paintings come from etc. etc.) and the secret door is well placed. I am missing a sort of oomph factor, a stellar encounter or distinct feature that merits it being one of three adventures.  ** for being about average, hard to judge, the atmosphere is odd.    

The Immortal Zoo of Ping-Feng.
Lvl 4 – 7


The best of the bunch, and it showcases the strange style of the whole supplement better than anything in the supplement. A subterranean zoo, long-forgotten, settled by the Astrologer Ping Feng and lost for centuries. The damn thing has been going for centuries with its caretaker apparently procuring food somewhere but fuck it, people search it out because it might still hold the secret of immortality.

The central conceit is that as you enter the Zoo you are trapped and a concealed opponent, the Nightingale, unlocks the cages at opportune times so a deadly game of Cats and Mice may occur. The map is complex enough to allow multiple means of exploring the labyrinth while being chased by increasingly belligerent monstrosities. The longer you take to figure out it’s the damn Nightingale, the more monsters are released (and to its credit, there’s a short sidebar with nightingale tactics so you understand when to release a monster) until you become cornered and, given the strength of some of them, probably overwhelmed?

Pretty good job on the monsters, very creative. A four-headed tortoise with a jeweled shell, a schorpion goat demon, a frog with the voice of a young girl, the sensual nephidean vampire, a hypnotic blood-drinking peacock, a flail-headed triceratops and a shit-faced alcoholic Griffon. There’s two visiting lunatics but not really any way to perhaps use the monsters against eachother indulge in faction play beyond figuring out the secret to escape. There’s an element that is interesting in that the creatures themselves are worth money if left alive but most of them are going to be chopped down and killed if I know PCs. The whole thing is very single session, no R&R, resource management, exploration, factions, and secret door placement is fairly arbitrary but this should be short, punchy, playable and fun. ***

The Library of Zorlacc
(4-7)


The library of a compulsive bibliophile and alchemist. Each librarian thief is bound by magical oath to not notice or interact with one another unless the library is breached. There is no one use for this location but several are suggested, among them burglary, a common theme of city adventures. The conceit is that each library room can only be accessed via a carefully concealed secret door that will only open if you solve a puzzle (usually in the form of noticing something off, and then interacting with it). The whole set up is sort of puzzling since most secret areas can either be accessed by standard secret doors from building areas or secret doors on the outside and the map is confusing to the point of illegibility. Though it is noted that the lethality of the adventure relies on how well the various librarians coordinate their efforts in stopping intrusion, they merely use (whatever the most sophisticated tactics are the GM can devise). Librarians have a random chance of being in or arriving later, and each is an NPC of unique ability, from extensive knowledge of the city of Vornheim to throwing Vials of Acid at the PCs or being possessed by the Bone-sucking Demon Vorthulax! Maybe a little stronger then House of the Medusa, the NPCs are all colorful and the existence of a demon summoning rug that will only be used by Zorlacc in times of great crises is an interesting addition. An honorable mention for the Hydra-pruner in the basement (remember that snakes are books). **

The third part of Vornheim concerns the various rules and tables and forms the backbone of the city kit. This is where Vornheim is at its most ambitious but also where its omissions are most telling. The emphasis on emergent world-building is interesting because it saves time. Rather then map out, beforehand, all major landmarks and wealth levels, Vornheim recommends you generate them when they become important to the game. This approach harkens back all the way to the S&S short stories; Leiber didn’t immediately describe the difference between the Gods of and the Gods In Lahkmar, or explain where every single building stood, or who each specific god was etc but revealed them peacemail, as needed, while dropping the odd foreshadowing hint to tantalize the reader.

You get quick but therefore also very barebones rules for placing these neighbourhoods and generating their wealth level and I think that also misses an opportunity to give flavor and color to the rather amorphous and general nature of Vornheim as described. There’s no way to differentiate, beyond that single dice roll, what each neighbourhood is like, which represents a missed opportunity. If you take the trouble of differentiating different neighbourhoods then that difference should mean something, otherwise one can simply fast travel.

The most ambitious are the City-crawl rules provided within. These are for occasions when free movement in the city becomes dangerous, such as during the Festival of Masks,
The goofy dice-rules, tucked away in the pages of Veins of the Earth like a dead rat, have in this supplement their primordial antecedent. It goes without saying that resolution should just be a combination of dice rolls as these allow you to create a truly astonishing set of distribution curves, of which the humble 3d6 is but the first and most rudimentary. Tools are given to create random floorplans or create random neighbourhoods to crawl through which serves as a stopgap measure in case PCs go off the grid but stops there and no further. Generate plan, roll random encounters (which often double as hooks) provided in back of book seems to be the gist of it.

As a stopgap measure its nice to have, but it falls into the category of a random dungeon generator. It can work, but it needs to generate enough variety to carry multiple sessions of play if it is to hold up under repeated play. I imagine a list of environmental hazards, local conditions, barricades, some unique features on the street to discover while crawling (rare shopkeeper, obscure inn, prominent artist, abandoned serpent garden etc.). That being said, the random encounters as written are manifold and fairly good, functioning disjointedly as environmental factors, hooks or straight up encounters.

Lunar eclipse. Citizens become nervous, superstitious, and paranoid until next morning

Street/floor collapses, d6 PCs tumble 50 feet into black water and stone tunnels. Strange toads (or albino crocodiles encrusted with jewels) stir in the murk.

Party passes members of Princeling Gang buying white moth opium off gang of smugglers. Both sides are inclined to kill PCs to avoid being exposed


There is an off-beat method of resolving disputes with the legal authorities that makes each altercation function as a type of special hook and is arguably another strong part of the book. Vornheim’s baroque tapestry of age-old law results in a veritable cornucopia of bizarre forms of procedure, from the relatively straightforward Trial by Assassin, where the PCs must elude for a period of time 20 concerned citizens tasked with assassinating them, to the byzantine Trial by Animal, where each party attempts to convince the jury that either a toad or a goat commited the injustice, to the downright farcical Anti-Trial, where the party that is deemed guilty goes free and vice versa.

The various tables to generate a plethora of NPCs, always with memorable or distinct details, are a bit too weird to use with any city but Vornheim but serve well. This is bolstered by random treasure, fortunes, shopkeepers etc. etc. All of this combines to communicate an atmosphere, a sense of the place.

Where Vornheim arguably fails, and where Veins did a better job, is in systems, the skeleton of a toolbox. For all its flaws, Veins, in addition to having a beautifully creative Bestiary, tackles the process of Veinscrawling head-on and gives you the full monty, from reworked encumberance, mutation, climbing, tunnel generation, cave generation, food, light etc. etc. etc. Now it doesn’t always do that consistently and sometimes it drops the ball, but it attempts to engage with the material with an ingenuity and at a level of depth that was mostly unheard of.  

Vornheim has plenty of atmosphere, and has enough content to communicate that atmosphere, but the rules are stopgap or rudimentary. It is suggested a chess match is played with the surviving pieces serving as assets resulting from a faction war between two parties, for example. There’s rules that allow you to resolve trivial things, like a rule of thumb for figuring out item prices on the fly. This was not what it needed.

Whenever I try to figure out if something meant for sandbox play is any good, I try to ask myself, what would Kevin Crawford do? And the answer is always the same, because it is the correct answer. You take the planet generation system from SWN and you apply it to neighbourhoods, and you use the faction system so varied and complex organizations, in the form of gangs, cults, priesthoods, guilds, berserker lodges and covens can be generated quickly, yet with sufficient variety so as to inspire the GM and you provide a robust yet manageable system to resolve faction conflicts so the whole can be played as a living, breathing sandbox. Vornheim states that pissing off people or factions during your adventures is one of the DISTINCTIVE differences between city campaigns and dungeons and proceeds to give you, well, arbitrary chess based resolution. Do I need a recommended Elo before I attempt this, and what is Vornheim’s position on Backgammon based resolution systems?

Consigning trivial detail to the quantum foam to be collapsed when needed is a fine approach but in its approach Vornheim has proceeded too far. For all its colorful menagerie of Ghormenghastian aristocrats and shopkeepers with bizarre quirks, there is barely any room for the big guys, the major players, the big hombres, what should be the truly memorable parts of the damn setting and for all its boasts of giving us the tools to generate such and such it gives us the surface details only.

The Karameikos gazzeteer has, all things told, maybe a handful of factions? But each is impactful on the setting as a whole, and provides a springboard to create adventure from. Vornheim, in seeking to remain aloof and mysterious, denies itself a potent advantage in favor of a cavalcade of colorful, yet ultimately interchangeable npc templates, and that is ultimately to its detriment. I forgot most of the entries on the table, but I remembered the Chain, or the Three Witches at the beginning of the book. My opinion is entirely supported in Veins, which most certainly deigns to tackle the inhabitants that compose its alien milieu, from the nuisance vermin lantern dogs to the civilization devouring Civilopede. Also when I swam across the ocean to steal British Covid vaccines out of patriotic duty since the Dutch government is late in procuring them [4], I told Patrick Stuart about this idea I had and he 100% agreed with me. ‘Bloimy, You are right as the Chimes of Great Big Ben Prince,’ he said. ‘Now let me buy you a Crispet with Cricket-sauce.’   
As a collection of hooks or as a mood peace this stuff is certainly not bad. It manages to convey its themes of alienation, ennui, baroque strangeness and madness quite well. But that’s ultimately all it does. It lacks the weight of something like Carcosa, which boldly re-envisions DnD while miraculously leaving its core components untouched, or the fecund creativity of Veins, or the depth of something as serviceable and homely as GAZ 1. A vital spirit, with NPCs, Monsters, Items and magical shit, was needed for its setting, and big beautiful complex mechanics, were needed to make it work as a toolkit. Unless you really dig the style and are looking for something cool to show to your stoner friends or showcase on your coffee table, I think give it a pass.

Let the Great Artpunk Crusade Begin.

**






[1] Though one would infer that given its author the original campaign does not suffer from any dearth in that dimension!
[2] In general, one can tell the digestible artpunk from the fact that it still has some sort of intelligable style, albeit an obscure one and the inferior variant from the fact that it is essentially dissonant noise, the creative equivalent of a seizure.
[3] Ghormenghast is not cited in the Appendix Z but I took it as point that lies equidistant on the line that separates Alice in Wonderland from Viriconium so there you go.
[4] And also to avenge the humiliating defeat we eventually suffered at the hands of the English during the trade wars of the Golden Age.


43 thoughts on “[Review] Vornheim (Lotfp); Artpunk Ground Zero

  1. I think I know the end of that story: “Little Timmy’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, and he was cast into THE LAKE OF FIRE. ‘For he who forsaketh my strict time records, forsaketh my Game henceforth.’ (3 GYG 37:2)”

    It might be noted that as style over substance supplements go, this one certainly has style. It has a flighty imagination, and at the same time it has no solid grounding to present the ideas as a cohesive whole. These two aspects are conjoined at the heart of Artpunk, showing both its appeal and eventual limitations. And that’s why, indeed, this supplement is a showcase. Börk Börk, for all its pretensions, is much more tightly constructed, and should work well as a focused mini-system you play for 1d4+2 sessions before wrapping it up and moving on.

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  2. I basically agree; Vornheim is big on atmosphere and quirky ideas and otherwise a bit lightweight. I think it’s worth mentioning the positive side of artpunk OSR specifically. When I encountered these earlier Zak books, and Lamentations in general, what I found refreshing about it was that it showed that, well, D&D could be cool and “adult.” That may be a bit shallow, but I was always repelled by the whole beard/t-shirt/body odor vibe of the hobby, the corny-ass humor and the shitty general level of taste. Dragonlance. It often felt like there was zero intersection with anything outside the hobby itself that had any level of aesthetic quality.

    I think Vornheim overall points to possibilities. The systems are kind of meager, but a return of procedural generation, combined with outside-the-box mechanics like drop-die tables and the like, suggested a willingness to return to old-school techniques while being unafraid to get creative with them. Vornheim seems very influenced by Miéville, while Red and Pleasant Land explicitly references Beyond the Looking Glass. Zak always had COOL ideas, even if they were often only partially realized.

    That’s why I am overall positive about artpunk OSR. There’s plenty of excess, overreach and pretentiousness, but I like what it’s usually TRYING to do. Is it spent as a movement? Maybe. I still welcome GOOD artpunk, like Veins, Yoon-Suin, DCO, etc. Maybe it’s no longer worth trying PURELY for the sake of trying. The possibilities have been sketched out and the gold rush is over. I’ll say this: the best artpunk OSR has always been OSR first. Good systems, well-designed encounters, open-ended play, etc.

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    1. I agree, Vornheim showed us that something like DIY outsider art was possible in self-published D&D. But Vornheim also showed us that it could be surpassed… in time. It motivated me as I worked on the city portion of Cha’alt: Fuchsia Malaise.

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      1. On an unrelated note, The Palace of Unquiet Repose showed up in my mailbox today. Meanwhile, tomorrow I’m going to run my players through our fourth session of the DCC version. They just arrived in the Necropolis. I’m pretty psyched to ratchet up the difficulty a notch and see the fun they have.

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    2. Zak is the kind of person that a greasy cornball neckbeard would find cool. A canny, well-adjusted human being would see him for the third-rate Svengali that he is, but in the land of dorks and nerds, the amateur pornographer is king. You can make a good case that he has a better aesthetic than the cartoony fantasy art of the 2000s, but that’s not saying much. Maybe I’m being too harsh here, but I always felt immediate revulsion for the man.

      I don’t think you’re being shallow regarding feeling embarrassed by the vibe of D&D. I remember as teenager it struck me as the dorkiest thing in the world, even worse than anime or Magic: The Gathering. The OSR artpunk movement is what made me interested in RPGs, although I give specific credit to Luke Gearing’s zines and Goblin Punch.

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      1. Well I didn’t actually know anyone who played D&D, which let my imagination run wild in terms of imagining how uncool it must be. This was the 3rd and 4th Edition era, where the cost of entry was relatively high in terms of money and mental investment. Gone were the days of Timmy buying a Basic box set at the toy store and going off to play with Johnny, Susie, and Billy. Me and my friends mostly played Risk, Pokemon, or video games. Lingering moral panic stuff from the 80s/90s that may have hurt my perception D&D as well. There was just an overall bad vibe around the game back in those days.

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      2. I always shave my neck, so you must be talking about someone else.

        I really dislike Zak as a person, having interacted with him. But I do think he made a bunch of cool things. Definitely more style than substance, but I have no problem giving credit where credit is due. Tastes vary, so there’s no real point debating it.

        We definitely agree on Goblin Punch, at least. I’d agree on Gearing but I’m just not that much into zines as a way of packaging content.

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      3. “Well I didn’t actually know anyone who played D&D, which let my imagination run wild in terms of imagining how uncool it must be.”

        There’s a BIG difference between how it all looked from the inside as opposed to the outside. I’m not limiting my criticisms to post-2e. You may think that earlier D&D was “cooler,” but that’s mainly OSR nostalgia. If you look at the stuff that came out of TSR/WotC over the years, there’s a culture of mediocrity that has ALWAYS accompanied it like a miasma of armpits and feet. Sure, it has its moments.

        “Lingering moral panic stuff from the 80s/90s that may have hurt my perception D&D as well.”

        Wat? There are at least three things wrong with that statement.

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      4. Well keep in mind that I’m talking about how it looked to me as a nerdy preteen/teen in the suburban sprawl of North America. I don’t get the impression that D&D was ever very cool, but it was popular during it’s peak in the 80s. It was something people did. By the time I was old enough to maybe play D&D, it had become more inaccessible and weird.

        Regarding the moral panic stuff, let me clarify. Some of the kids I hung out with back then had very strict, religious parents. My best friend wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter in middle school due to concerns about witchcraft. I suspect that ultra-conservative attitude in my community was a contributing factor to nobody playing D&D, which was a contributing factor to teenage Starmenter imagining that it must be the nerdiest thing in the world.

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      5. Interesting perspective. As someone who played D&D in the 80’s, I never felt like it was popular. Quite the contrary; it was the sort of thing that would get you bullied, or at least teased. So I think that your initial sentiment about it being the nerdiest thing in the world is more accurate than you know. It definitely felt that way to me! Let me put it this way: there were plenty nerds who thought it was lame as hell, and would make fun of you for playing it.

        I’d be curious to know when it was most popular. I feel like that time is now. You certainly didn’t have celebrities proudly flashing their first edition DMG like you occasionally see. I mean, fucking Vin Diesel plays D&D…in public! Inconceivable!

        The funny thing about the whole satanic panic thing, to me, is that (1) Satan makes things cooler, not less cool, and (2) among role-playing games, D&D was the most eager to avoid any such trappings. For a while, they even made assassins an NPC-only class, IIRC. The problem is that none of the fundamentalists have heard of Warhammer Fantasy.

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  3. I’d like to echo my players’ opinion of the preamble: pure work of art! I skip introductory fiction in games, like 99% of the time – in fact, I still haven’t read most fiction pieces in my collection of WoD books after 10-15 years -, but this is just too good. I wonder if a tongue-in-cheek historical treatise of the OSR should be available in print…

    As for Vornheim, at the time of its release I didn’t really understand why it was such a big deal. The reviews praised the helpful random tables and procedures, but so few concrete details were included, I just didn’t get it. I tried to read Zak’s blog, I found the prose confusing. It felt like poetry, when I needed technical instructions. Then I finally gave in and bought a PDF (because I was trying to avoid accumulating further physical books at the time; a trend that stopped with Echoes from Fomalhaut), and I was even more puzzled, because my suspicions were confirmed – that it’s not the kind of city I would run, and the tools therein, well, already had better alternatives in the then rich and blooming blogosphere. Yet, everywhere I looked, everyone whose blogs I liked at the time (because they wrote clearly and instructively about running D&D) seemed to be really into Vornheim for some reason.

    @Edgewise
    Is Yoon-Suin considered artpunk? I always viewed it as simply using an unconventional setting, but the building blocks within felt pretty much standard D&D.

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    1. “@Edgewise
      Is Yoon-Suin considered artpunk? I always viewed it as simply using an unconventional setting, but the building blocks within felt pretty much standard D&D.”

      I’m probably interpreting “artpunk” as “artsy.” I’m not sure that’s exactly wrong. Has the term been defined? I haven’t run into it outside Prince’s usage.

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      1. Stuart is nothing if not specific. Some of those things he mentions are definitely more tendencies that necessary parts of the definition–obviously not all artpunk creators are trans, and why would be it be important that artpunkers are left-of-center if political subjects are considered largely tangential?

        Still, it’s a pretty good definition. I like the fact that it’s unavoidably OSR. You can see that in Deep Carbon Observatory. As I’ve pointed out to Prince, DCO is careful to make it clear that time, food and water must be carefully tracked. I’ll die on a hill to point out that DCO hews closely to old-fashioned principles of good adventure design.

        It could be a bit less linear, though. That’s my sole criticism. That, and the Canoptic Guards are way too tough for a nigh-unavoidable encounter.

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      2. I think we should cut Stuart a rare bit of slack. This was written when he was still full on Wokepatrick instead of the more wild card/edgy Patrick of today so anything that sounds like he is just trying to avoid getting cancelled should be interpreted as a form of etiquette or a personal ideosyncracy and subsequently ignored from serious analysis.

        I remember old DCO being very creative but a bit of a fucking mess but I’ll check out the new one if I am to do this Artpunk Crawl thing that I have stupidly committed myself too.

        I read part of your play report. Give me some time to respond, but it looks very nice, and thank you for sharing it.

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      3. Deep Carbon Observatory Remastered is tight. The original was an artpunk project, the revision is more of a 3rd phase OSR project. There’s serious emphasis on formatting and general ease of use. The PDF has bookmarks and a million hyperlinks. Stuart also expands on the more thinly-described sections from the original, especially the starting town and the journey up the river. I think you’ll like it.

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      4. [Cutting slack for Stu]

        I’m just noting the parts of his definition that I agree with, and the parts that I don’t. I don’t have a problem, per se, with it or Patrick.

        [1st edition DCO vs. 2nd edition DCO]

        I made a pretty close comparison of the two, since I undertook the Quixotic endeavor to convert DCO to Warlock for my home table, and it was useful to check them both when one was unclear. I agree that it’s much easier to use–in addition, is a lot prettier. Despite all those flourishes, actual changes to the material were nonexistent as far as I could tell.

        I’m not sure if I agree that it no longer meets his definition of “artpunk.”

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  4. My working experience with Vornheim has been singularly different. Without a shadow of a doubt, Vornheim sold me on the OSR (alongside Island Of Purple Putresence) and rejuvenated RPGs in general for somebody who had been mired in increasingly toothless narrative systems.

    Part of this I can quantify with materia, the other part… is perhaps more anecdotal.

    My first comment, would be that Vornheim itself and the micro setting surrounding it, was in fact only a brief glimpse into the author’s own setting and served more as a display of the system in action – akin to an example of character creation – than any kind of gazateer or setting book.

    *It’s a slim book about frameworks* that offers examples of said frameworks in action and presumes that you’re going to be creating your own setting, your own Vornheim or whatever the hell you want to call it. Sure, he throws out the “this is the real Vornheim that my group plays” , but that’s not the primary focus.

    That said, what Zak _does_ offer up, is evocative and stylish. I’d argue that the NPC tables alongside the Noble creation tables, are some of the best around… I use random generators all the time and not all are created equal. The noble tables, for example, allow one to generate entire houses _in play_, the same surnames repeating, encounter after encounter adding more meat to the bones.

    Again however, it’s about examples. ‘Make sure your tables communicate a vision’ in this case. No we don’t need ‘big, beautiful, complex mechanics’, although those are great. We want stuff that works and works _now_. You found no utility in those mechanics. I, on the other hand, did – perhaps because I DM on the fly a lot and often need something at speed. Sometimes it’s just about buying me time to think, to give the *illusion* of structure. It’s ugly as sin, but I can come back to that rickety scaffold at a later date and apply some TLC.

    I never had the opportunity to run the scenarios, but I believe their utility lies in their drop in nature. Admittedly, I always hated the chess rules bit, though I suppose if one were a regular chess player, one could set up extra stipulations that might potentially affect one’s D&D campaign. I don’t know, it didn’t resonate.

    Regarding SWN and KC’s tag system, you’re spot on, he nails it. But it’s not for on the fly generation…no way in hell. Crawford’s work excels in the department of prep… he makes world building fun and easy. He provides a factory and production line – but sometimes you need a plastic box with a hammer, nails and a roll of gaffer tape.

    Spiritually speaking, it lit a torch and kicked down the door for many. Artpunk be damned, without Vornheim, I’m not sure i would ever have found my way to the gates of Castle Xyntillan.. I believe it made a huge contribution to the hobby, certainly to mine and to the other DMs I recommended it to (without hesitation).

    At any rate, I look forward to visiting the Palace of Unquiet Repose… I only started reading your blog recently and when I saw that you were the Red Prophet guy, I was hooked.

    Stay well.

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    1. You will always have me argue that too much prep is wasteful but a little prep goes a long way, that’s why having a firm foundation is a better approach then trusting to legerdermain and trickery to maintain the illusion of depth. Sooner or later, your Players will find out.

      I think making a point that Vornheim was historically important is spot on, and it definetely channelled the spirit of the OSR, even if the execution now is less then hale.

      Welcome to AoD Nicholas. I did do RPR with Aaron, about 50/50, where he came up with the original concept and I tightened it up and expanded it, did the language, added/edited some stuff etc. etc. Palace I was the big dog, so I hope you will like it.

      Stay well.

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  5. I stand by my previous claim that there is some small measure of merit in Vornheim, if only in atmosphere and aesthetic and the generation of filler. The Unperson’s fever dreams and love of random generation create incidents, background, moments that occur when your party is on its way from A to B and you want a certain kind of fantasy city to throw up an appropriate bit of colour. What it will not do is the heavy lifting, the broad strokes. I am good at those but need grist for fine detailing and thus Vornheim continues to serve a purpose.

    It is not, however, as good as the Unperson says it is. Nothing he does is. Neither is it substantial. And neither is it particularly well laid out: the Unperson would set a better standard for table-ready material with Red and Pleasant Land.

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  6. I’m looking forward to a good thorough savaging of this whole genre, on all points, but my first and last question for all of these products so deep up their own rectums… do they even play? What are the odds that anyone ever sat down at a table, cracked open this book, and tried to use just it to play a session of D&D? Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination but I’m having a hard time seeing these ugly postmodern art projects ever leading to… rolling dices with dudes.

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      1. I dunno about that…RQ seems more popular than ever, to my eyes. High-quality content is coming out at a good clip and spending time on DriveThru’s best selling list. I see plenty of favorable talk on the forums. So I don’t think you’re alone by any means.

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  7. Was it Patrick Stuart who said “Vornheim was our Sex Pistols. Those who bought it went on to write.”
    Perhaps a little naive looking back, this book used to be an explosive of ideas.

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    1. Hmm, are you sure he didn’t mean the Velvet Underground? Brian Eno was quoted as saying their first album only sold 30k copies, but everyone who bought one started their own band. It’s a great quote…maybe even a little true – you gotta love the VU.

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  8. Tangential note: Mörk Borg seems to be the newest system besieged by a large number of aficionados who are trying to sell nicely packaged air – in our case, 2d6 garishly yellow pages containing three lines of text in the JSL Blackletter font ( https://www.dafont.com/jsl-blackletter.font ) and one piece of clipart. Pony up those buckaroos, ladies, gentlemen, and otherlings! It is not just some greasy role-playing game, it is LE ART!

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      1. There’s an added irony to this. By the early nineties bands in the genre of pop-metal (blech) and glam metal (same thing) go lumped together as “hair metal”. The kids into bands like Poison or Cinderella who grew out their hair were called “hair farmers”. So there’s a third choice, “hair brained” as “hair farmer brained”.

        Of course now both genre would probably just be called rock.

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  9. [1st edition DCO vs. 2nd edition DCO]

    Explicit mention of Drow was excised from DCO 2nd. When I inquired about it on Reddit, Patrick said he could not recall for certain why.

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