It was the time of the Two Thrones when the Artpunkman first came to our lands. The OSRmen were few, living lives of pious observance to the Appendix N, and would only occasionally look upon the great purple monolith that had been erected alongside the twenty-sided throne with wary disgust. Even then the ways of the Artpunkmen were disturbing and strange. But we had been told to be kind, and thus we welcomed them.
For a time the OSRmen sought in vain to teach the Artpunkmen the word of St. Gygax, but always the Artpunkmen would misunderstand. They had roving minds that walked strange, twisted corridors and always they looked for new things on the horizon. Yet for a time Artpunkman and OSRman worshipped together.
When the first purple monolith had been erected in the village square, we were appalled. Was this not what they had fled from? But again the softer of the OSRmen urged patience and understanding, and so hands that had reached for axe and torch relaxed. There was room enough, it was stated, in the OSR for Artpunkman and OSRman alike.
It began with a single purple monolith. Soon they were everywhere. Soon many of the alleys and streets of the OSR became unsightly in our eyes. The streets were filled not with the earnest hymns to St. Anderson or Jaquays the Twice-born, but with the eerie wailing and meaningless babel of the Artpunkmen. The statue of St. Gygax was first besmirched with offal and then pulled down, replaced with a hideous lernean idol, whose many horned heads would vomit a perpetual torrent of black slime. Yet still we did not take up our swords.
One day the Artpunkmen stood before our temple. “We have endured your insults long enough,” they said. “You refuse to worship the OSR by raising the purple obelisk, the true sign of fealty. You insult and belittle us. We demand that you fire this profane edifice and submit to our will.”
When it came, it was not preached by any state or church. Yet still one day an Artpunkman was found nailed to the purple obelisk in the village square. On his chest was branded a message; “Thou hath taken our OSR and delivered it unto moneylenders, charlatans and harlots. Thou maketh merry, and mocketh, and hath forgotten thine Appendix N, and on the forums thou speaketh lightly of the OSR if at all! But our OSR is a jealous, and a vengeful OSR, and mockery he abideth not! For we believe in the living, unbroken and eternal OSR, who came from Appendix N and who manifested itself through Gygax, Anderson & Jaquays and whose word is preached by Lux, Fullerton, Huso and countless multitudes that came before and after them, and we follow its inscrutable Will, whose true designs mankind cannot nor ever will unravel.
And thus we made war upon them.
A Red and Pleasant Land (2014)
Zak S (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Another reReview and the reason should be obvious. Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S. is another landmark entry in the Artpunk phenomenon, and the first campaign setting that has the problems commonly associated with it without it being absolute shit. It is also hugely successful for an Indie publication, it comes with endorsements from China Mevielle and Monte Cook and lauded with awards: The Gold Ennie, the Monocled Raggi of Prestigious Excellence, the Nobel Peace Prize for Roleplaying Literature and the Zak. S. Award for Exceptional Roleplaying Achievement. Get in the back of the bus Gramps! The Powers That Be have decreed this is a work of GENIUS and YOU had better shut your prole mouth and get on board the Z train!
So against all the powers of heaven and hell I will do something which is exceptionally boorish and ask the question “but has anyone actually played it?” After the outraged boohing and angry hisses have died down, A cursory google search “Red and Pleasant Land play report” or “Red and Pleasant Land actual play” brings up several entries: There are multiple single session entries and on the Lotfp website there is what appears to be a 4 part play report that takes place largely in locations of the GM’s own devising, involving no significant creatures or content from RaPL besides Vampires (but sounds fun though!). This is a slippery argument because play reports under a certain weight class are as rare as diamonds but given the popularity of the work it is certainly reasonable to expect there to be some. This also doesn’t mean that you can’t be inspired by this setting, or that there aren’t things you can steal from it (there are!) but I am a utility guy, I judge material by whether or not you can use it. Let’s dive in.
Red and Pleasant Land is a 197 campaign setting by Zak S, set in the Volvodja, a Transylvania that has been transfigured into a single gigantic palace dungeon and functions more or less like a crossbreed of Alice in Wonderland and the movie Dracula as envisoned by M.C. Escher. This strange country of mirrors, croquet, impalement, Chess and temporal distortion is the site of a paradoxical war between mad powers; the fickle Queen of Hearts and the cruel Red King fight a senseless, temporally distorted war. On the sidelines, the forces of the Pale King and the Colorless Queen jostle for position. It illustrates the strengths and flaws of Zaks stuff like no other; a stunning, bizarre aesthetic and a few intriguing ideas coupled with a lack of overall substance.
I think in order to understand the problem I must fall back to my crude typology of campaign settings that I discussed when I reviewed Carcosa. There are, fundamentally, two types of DnD setting. One (we will call it A) arranges elements from traditional D&D in such a fashion that it can serve as the backdrop for play and generally accommodates a variety of playstyles, themes, moods etc. etc. The other (B) involves major deviations from the standard framework and sacrifices a lot of the versatility of old DnD to provide an experience that is much narrower, but potentially much deeper. Carcosa is my favorite example of a type B setting.
Red and Pleasant Land is a type B setting for sure, and it wears it on its sleeves. The old bestiary is nowhere to be found and has been replaced with an alice in wonderland themed vampiric one , there is a beautiful custom class to differentiate this DnD from Ye Aulde DeeAnnDee as played by your grandfather, the appendix N has been chucked out in favor of Alice in Wonderland, the Movie Dracula, Flatland and some other crap no one has ever heard of (Borges, Cortzar, Barthelme etc. etc.), and all the conventions of the old setting have been turned on their head. Conceptually, it is intriguing for a short skiff, but the problem is that this has been conceived as a backdrop to sustain multiple levels worth of play, and elements that are intriguing as a change of pace become tiresome over a long period of time.
The themes in Red and Pleasant Land are very narrow, perfect for an adventure, limited for a setting. Time and space are screwy at best. The underground is all well-furnished dungeon-palace. The top is all well-manicured gardens and hedges. The last humans in this nightmarish baroque hell-scape huddle in concealed cities in the woods, but the unreality of the setting works against it. There are children in wells that will trade items of a certain letter for food and magic shopkeepers that exist essentially because they do. Besides the castle of the Red King and the Queen of Hearts, which we will discuss in detail, everything is cut from the same narrow bolt of fabric.
The idea behind Red and Pleasant Land is that the characters gradually become embroiled in the senseless and irrational politics of Volvodja but here the arbitrary nature of the setting works against this concept. Intrigue relies upon firmly defined stakes, well established characters, a system to manipulate etc. etc. In Volvodja events may be reversed, motives are irrational, history has been abolished, stakes are often arbitrary and there is ultimately, no reason to care about anything beyond immediate survival. To quote from the author:
To capture the pointlessness of life in Voivodja, it is best for the Referee to try to think up ways to keep any conversation going as long as possible. When a character asserts a fact or other idea they want an NPC to believe, have the NPC ask questions about it, deny it or otherwise find an excuse to talk instead of act.
To Zak’s credit, the atmosphere, the one thing timeless and spaceless Volvodja retains, is pinned down very precisely. In a page, he manages to pin down the difference between wacky and weird, that of malicious, sinister ulterior design, reasonably well. The problem is not the vision of Volvodja, which has a bewildering attraction, the problem is in the t-axis. In depriving itself of stakes, history, motive and a plethora of different themes, that singular vision must do an ungodly amount of lifting.
But other then that, how was the play Miss Lincoln?
Stand up and applaud the inclusion of the Alice class, the specialist with randomly generated abilities, many of them tied to a unique Lewis Carrolian-sounding sentence. Each hour, a reality altering ability may be invoked to get some extra help, be it in the form of a mundane object, sudden ally or suddenly appearing secret door! Oh how witty, you say to your fellow theatre goers, such thematic fealty, many Lewis Carol. Wow!
78 It was very shiny and stuck out like a soup spoon… On a successful mêlée hit, the Alice may immediately make a Sleight of Hand attempt to grab an item (other than the target’s weapon) off a target. This won’t work twice on anyone above zombie-intelligence who sees it. Re-rolling this result means the Alice gets a bonus to the Sleight roll: +1, then +2, then +3, etc.
And then of course there are the creatures! Again, to RaPL’s credit, many of the unique NPCs are given specific relationships with eachother so a sort of tapestry is formed as the basis for interaction. The Sphinx hunts the Unicorn. The relationship between the King of Hearts and the Queen of Hearts are established. The Red King has three Brides, each with a different agenda (one wants to kill him, one wants to kill the others, one is loyal). Ceshire Cat, Mad Hatter, and other Carrol favorites all make their appearance, often with a dash of horror to spice things up a bit. The temporally shifting nature of the Land is tied to the reverse-aging Jabberwock, potentially its most powerful inhabitant, so slaying it will stabilize these changes and reveal details about the setting (though what details these should be is anyone’s guess).
The bulk of the bestiary is stuffed with all manner of bizarre vampires, organized like Chess Pieces, with the Pawns of the different houses making up the lower rank of vampire, the Knights comprising its fighting men, the Bishops its unholy spellcasters (often with different blasphemous unique abilities). Of interest are the Rooks, gigantic lumbering Humpty-dumpty like monstrosities equipped with odd and terrible powers. The Red rooks can hold people in place with riddles, the Colorless rooks must be drawn and function
There are some additional gripes, which are exacerbated in a long campaign. 1) Magic is already unpredictable in Castiche Castle, to the point where every spell has a failure chance, and most of the powerful vampires (the kings & queens, duchess etc. etc.) have blanket Magic Immunity. If you combine this with the Quiet Side, a place on the other side of the mirror, that the PCs are likely to have their serious bossfights with, magic in RaPL has been gelded.
A second very vulgar point, disrespecting of the Artiste’s unique Vision! requires a glance at the random encounter table in Volvodja. A casual glance at the Interior table reveals that approx. 40% of encounters are with Vampires of various houses. A similar glance at the Encounters Forest (Night) yields about the same ratio. Quick DnD trivia question: What do DnD vampires do? Did you answer include something like Charm Person and Level Drain? Then perhaps you start to understand the problem.
The basic idea behind RaPl is that you enter at about level 6, run weird errands (like finding the Queen’s Wicket) for various bizarre NPCs, get embroiled in various relations trying not to get eaten, while looting the furnishings of the massive Interior until you are about level 9-13 and ready to take out the Queen and King. Now it is stated that no one in Volvodja is unalterably hostile, but unless that means that the majority of your random encounters are going to have a nonviolent solution, you are looking at a steady diet of vampire encounters, every one of which has the potential to kick someone back a single level, thereby obliterating thousands upon thousands of experience points and sessions worth of play with a single attack. Now Level Drain is exciting because it sucks so much, but only if used sparingly. In a campaign where everyone and their dog packs Level Drain and Charm Person, with no reliable counter-measures, no resurrection or restoration spells on the Lotfp spell list, that’s a different fucking story.
But this is all terribly tedious and perhaps I should dwell on positive things: The Random Demon generation table is probably the best I have ever seen, and manages to convey the horrible, reality-altering nature of these hideously powerful monstrosities with quick and elegant lines of evocative description. If you have this thing anyway, the Random Demon Generation Table is worth porting if nothing else!
Then comes what is the best content in the entire book, the two castles of the Vampiric monarchs, but the tragedy is that they rely on a framework that will virtually guarantee that they will never see any use. This is the Porn part of Red and Pleasant Land, to fill your mind with visions of running this awesome vampire execution module in castles of twisted reality, but first your PCs must endure an entire campaign worth of inane cobbled together bullshit about shoe-theft and shrinking potions before they are deemed worthy to run the module as Le Artiste has conceived it. They lie outside of the Light-Cone of any possible campaign and there they will stay, forever beyond reach, tormenting you with interesting design choices until you give a disgusted sigh and wrench out the parts that you like to jam these unceremoniously into whatever cobbled-together B2 Rehash the party is going through this session because its easier to run.
Some general observations. The maps are hard on the eye and the skewed cubist style is vaguely nauseating, to the point that it hinders absorption, but this is not a dealbreaker. Two Alice in wonderland like features, that of shriking potions and the ability to walk through Mirrors into the other “Quiet Side” are implemented in both adventures, but they are never used in such a way as to cleverly bypass obstacles and end up being included more as mood then anything else. Having some sort of area that is only accessible if you are tiny (as in a subsequent 1 page dungeon) or including areas of the dungeon that are different in the quiet side then they are on the normal side, would have been a textbook method of implementing it. As is, all the bossfights (for lack of a better word) are on the quiet side, meaning the PCs have a time limit before the silence drives them insane, and clerics are not allowed to cast any spells.
There’s a little bit of assembly required with both adventures, as the relationship between the PCs and the Vampire monarchs should ideally be something other then directly antagonistic, but I think given the amount of random generation tables this should be possible. The most puzzling are the Random Encounter Tables, which says to check “Every 2 in game minutes” or about 5 times per turn, with a +50% chance of getting an encounter? Am I reading that correctly? There’s a bat tomb room in the Castle Poenari that takes 20 minutes to search, is it really the idea that you have to make 10 random encounter rolls?
Useability is very high. The contents of the room are conveyed through a series of bullet points and the text tends to err more on the side of brevity then then loggorhea. Indeed as I have remarked before, this use of Bullet points was all but unprecedented at the time, and I think might be the work’s most enduring (and likely unacknowledged) legacy.
The superior of the two and probably the best part of the book, the Castle of the Queen of Hearts seeks to present a sort of living environment, complete with storerooms, bakeries, banquet halls and tearooms, for the PCs to at first cautiously explore, until it becomes time to deliver the killing stroke. The first floor is only dangerous if the PCs are clearly intruding, something that delivers roleplaying opportunities. There are multiple means of ingress into the castle proper, the castle has proper gateways and patrols, some entrances are hidden, and progress through the castle is bottlenecked in a manner reminiscent of Metroidvania. You often stumble upon odd roadblocks that have their resolution elsewhere in the castle. Similarly, the adventure occasionally takes into account unconventional tactics, such as destroying the wall of a cistern so the lower levels flood (vampires cannot take running water).
In the case of Castiche, half of the castle is at a 90 degree angle to the other half, and by walking through a complicated Tesseract-like set of small doors, the players can reverse their local gravity so it points to the ceiling, wall or whatever. This is great! The odd spacially fucked up corridor or chamber sustains the feel of unreality. The actual progress to the lower levels, which ARE guarded, is hidden and will require some combination of searching, cleverness and luck to find. Part of what makes this place, at least theoretically, fit for purpose is something like the hidden catacombs, which hold the beheaded corpses of the monarchs of the other suites, the lost heads of which can be used as fodder for adventure hooks later on.
This gravito-spatial fuckery takes on a nasty turn as the PCs progress deeper into Castle Castiche. Pools of blood clinging to walls, the unsettling amphibian vampires of the Nephidean House, concealed maps, the odd interesting magic item like the Rapier of Unnaming or the Vorpal Bolt, a room with a ball clock that can be fucked with to stop time, it all flows together rather well in a laudably ambitious manner while not bottlenecking you into a giant railroad.
I am less pleased about the implementation of the throne room then I am about the concept. You are deposited into an Escheresque landscape of inverted stairways and must fight the Queen and her demoniac Guests with rules that are the equivalent of the GM shaking the table and shining a bright light in the eyes of his players.
Castle Castiche’s strongest point is probably the weird spatial transitions between interlocking realms that convey the sort of nightmarish Alice in Wonderland vibe the entire book is going for. Strange gravity, spatial distortion, impaled virgins it’s pretty good.
The Palace of the Red King, in contrast, is more traditional dungeon fare, and is designed around that concept. It’s Castle Ravenloft turned up to eleven, strongly reminiscent of the last level of Castlevania: Bloodlines, a distorted, reality-warped castle full of enemies. The relationship between characters and dungeon is more straightforward, though the Red King’s Three Brides  play a prominent role in the adventure, alternatively aiding or tricking the characters as they progress through the castle proper. This is the real deal, a giant wall dotted with impaled foes, manned by living rooks and vampiric knights, with the castle surrounded by a moatway of blood. An almost cartoonish level of dark, something you would see in the Abyss or in Hell itself.
There is another classic element present in Castle Poenari but its very understated. Vampires obviously sleep during the day, so as a result both the King and his Brides will not be present during a daytime assault, with the walls only being manned by rooks and mome raths (green pigs). This day night element is exploited rarely; a hallway on the first floor causes characters to have to save or collapse from dehydration/exhaustion, with every minute of action taking an hour of game time, and there is a room where time repeats that advances the clock by 1 hour. I think an opportunity has been missed here, but it would have meant adding another element to a dungeon that is already overloaded with gimmicky mechanics.
There is the aforementioned Quiet Side that can be accessed via mirrors but this, like the night/day element, comes across like an afterthought or a gimmick, more then a central mechanic that can be exploited. The same goes for the shrinking mechanism: there is an opportunity to shrink oneself to a smaller size, but not really any point where this can be used to one’s favor, or any area that can only be accessed.
Poenari has a few encounters that are stronger then anything in Castiche but overall it is the weaker dungeon. When it is strong the imagery is striking and nightmarish. A liquid floor that you sink into and must swim to the bottom, a tesseract room with the inner sides opening and disgorging pawns of the red king, complete with stilt-like legs. A door that once opened, seals off all other doors until it is closed once more. An ever-turning hallway. One of the best encounters has bizarre golems appear and surround each character. This is all very good stuff. It has a unique, menacing vibe to it.
But at the same time the set-up for this entire thing is much more artificial then Cachtische, to the point of being half funhouse dungeon. You have to get four keys to open four doors so you can fuck around with some sort of chess puzzle room that I thought I understood but that feels, dumber then it should be?
The final tomb is on the quiet side but this is only an extra hindrance in what is already a brutally tough fight. The king wakes up at the first sound (rendering much of the day/night element void) and the characters must now fight him and their dopplegangers on an instant death timer without the benefit of their divine magic. As a last, defiant fuck you, the treasure is very cunningly hidden but runs into the 100k if you find it, and the hint is not an asspull.
With attempts at organization essentially ending at the gate of the Castle proper, Poenari is essentially a funhouse dungeon with some very strong environmental set-pieces to it. There’s good ideas but some of them end up as little more then fluff.
A vast amount of work is spent on describing these two high level castles, the piece de la resistance of any campaign in Red and Pleasant Land. Conversely, the campaign proper, the giant runway that is to lead you to this orgasmic vampire promised land, receives all of 3 one pagers, with individual encounters described in a few throwaway tables that are, frankly, underwhelming.
And herein we have the problem with RaPL in a nutshell. The campaign proper takes place in a map that has place names but that is essentially repeats of the same 4 flavors of ice-cream, you are provided with a torrential deluge of randomly generated adventure hooks, events and encounters but the question that should be asked is why do you have these tools in the first place? Red and Pleasant Land does not have the depth to sustain infinite amounts of campaigning, nor does it really need to. What it really needed was a small amount of content of very high quality, illustrative of its general principles, to serve as landmarks for the run on the castles proper.
The same principle applies to rules about nobility, or combat resolution, or whathaveyou. Its not that these rules are bad, although some are stopgap, it’s that its more ideas bolted onto a framework that is really only equipped to do a few things well.
Red and Pleasant Land should serve future OSRmen as the textbook example of the perils of the vision of the artiste growing too divorced from the realities of play and an illustration of an important dichotomy, that work can be compelling and have admirable qualities without ever seeing use at the table. If there was a way to condense it into a single adventure without doing overmuch violence to the interactive components I think it would be a superior work. For now it is good to read, to steal from, to place on the coffee table, to discuss in the salon and perhaps even in the bedchamber with M’lady. But to actually play it? Heaven help you. **
 To be fair, Lotfp does not have a bestiary to begin with!
 An allusion to Dracula’s three Wives.
36 thoughts on “[Review] Red and Pleasant Land (Lotfp); Once more Unto the Breach…”
Good review that nails the problem of this module exactly.
I played exactly one session of RapL as a player. We wandered around pointlessly, had some pointless conversations with equally pointless inhabitants, found some random (and pointless) stuff and were then gently nuged into the direction of one of the two castles. Ten the session was over and we never played again.
The whole thin was just so …well pointless.
Everything was random and strange for strangeness sake. Nothingwe did mattered because the game world itself was mad and didn’t make sense… so I never felt the need to go back to play that one.
I read the module a few months later and seeing it in its entirety only reassured me that I had done the right thing to leave that game behind.
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What if you did this The Dark Tower style and just had the two castles in a pocket demension (facing each other in constant struggle), they only access it when they agree to try and kill one of them?
That way you can throw the bestiary at them to fill in blanks and focus on the good stuff.
Two castles stand opposed in a wonderland void?
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[The themes in Red and Pleasant Land are very narrow, perfect for an adventure, limited for a setting.]
I think this sums up perfectly the relationship I have with the setting.
I’ve run three sessions of Red and Pleasant Land. The premise was a murder mystery: My home campaign rested in the Quiet side (without all those bullshit restrictions). The PCs were hired by the crown to investigate the death of a noble. He was murdered in his bedroom, with the door locked, and no sights of breaking, blood sprayed on the mirror. They investigated, performed a ritual on the mirror and voila… Welcome to Castle Poenari, which I have heavily modified to play to the strengths of the setting.
Truth be told we had a blast. The weirdness and whimsical tones of the setting paired with some dark touches here and there provided a great palette cleanser from the standard medieval fantasy.
PS: I take it as sarcasm that you haven’t heard of Borges and Cortazar. If not, I highly recommend them.
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I think we agree, but its nice to hear you had a good time. As a palette cleanser there’s nothing inherently wrong with RaPl, I just don’t see how you ever are going to get a protracted campaign out of it (I don’t think its theoretically impossible, just very unlikely).
I always google authors that I don’t know but I haven’t read them. I’m still on my Classical/Antiquity Binge. I’ve a hardcopy of Herodotus’s histories lined up, The Saga of Grettir the Strong is on my table, the Persian Book of Kings lies prostrate before me, offering itself, and I have a translation of The Song of the Cid too. There’s so many classic works to check out. My modern reading pile is half of Atlas Shrugged, which I will either follow up with Tolstoy or Murakami, not sure yet.
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Second the recommendations for Cortazar and (especially) Borges. Borges is one of those authors who you know for sure if he’d been born a few decades later would’ve played D&D (and, alas, probably not written most of the books he ended up writing instead). I wouldn’t recommend them above Herodotus, but definitely above Atlas Shrugged, at least.
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I will third the Borges rec, he’s one of my favorite authors. He wrote only short fiction and essays, so he’s very approachable. He even invented one of the monsters in the original AD&D Monster Manual. Ficciones, The Book of Sand, The Book of Imaginary Beings, and A Universal History of Infamy are all great. Yoon-Suin also cites him as an influence.
Hahaha it seems I must add another damn book to my reading pile. I’ll check out Borges.
All the old Greek stuff has been golden so far. Homer is of course great, but the Oresteian tragedy and the superior Sophoclean trilogy were stirring stuff too. I had latin and greek in high school but I dropped it because it did not interest me then. A waste! Material like the Peloponesean War by Thuycidides or The Persian Expedition help prop up the fantastic elements of a setting with a foundation of the mundane. Fantasy needs a backdrop of credible normalcy to set itself off against I think, which is why so many super high fantasy settings feel cartoonish.
I’m not sure if it was Dolmenwood who introduced the concept but there was a setting where magic only existed in the adventuring location and was all but absent in the heartland. That treatment might have some merit in it.
Atlas Shrugged is…interesting. Its philosophy has obvious flaws, in the sense that Rand seems to believe social responsibility and community are essentially secular sins and empathy is a sort of neurotic delusion, but its interesting to read a work that puts forth a philosophy of absolute meritocracy. I understand that this type of philosophy was very popular in the 1920s among intellectuals but today its all but vanished. The prose is very clean and precise, the scenes are vividly sketched, the characters are either achilleses of industry of neurotic ant-people etc. etc. Its probably a good counterseptic for the constant demoralization in pop-culture as long as you don’t go down the deep end and take it as gospel.
Opposed across a huge lawn or something yeah, just make the map smaller and work the Croquet hooks into a single encounter, dump the head of one of the monarchs in a pawn and there you go. The Bestiary is fine as a subset of encounters but to have to go with that over a prolongued period, yeesh!
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(Hmm, it seems I replied on a wrong comment the first time. Oh well…)
[I just don’t see how you ever are going to get a protracted campaign out of it]
That’s true. I suppose with enough time prepping it, even the most artsy-punk project can become playable, but we buy settings to save time, not sink in more. So as a setting, yeah, Voivodja is found wanting.
[I’ve a hardcopy of Herodotus’s histories lined up]
As a Greek, I applaud your taste, sir.
I am reading The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges at the moment. It sums up pretty coherently the prime forces that shaped the city-states of ancient Greece and that of Rome: Religious Beliefs and Family. I thinks it will help me enrich the experience of my players when their characters choose to stay in one of the cities in my campaign.
[There’s so many classic works to check out.]
Alas, so many books, so little time.
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So is the thing actually even well written? It sounds like an incredibly tiresome sophomoric “I am an artist hear me roar” exercise but if the thing isn’t actually built to be played then is it something that is read for pleasure? Real, actual, enjoyment that is.. not the vague dopamine tickle that comes from avant guarde novelty.
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I’m not a guy who reads RPG books for the sake of reading them, so I can’t comment on that. My point is not that its not meant to be played, my point is that no one is going to do so for very long because the setting has novelty appeal but very little to sustain prolongued interest so the best content will never be reached. Here’s an example of some of the stuff in the Castle:
28 STAR CHAMBER
* Surmounted by a 60’ high gold dome.
* Unless someone stops the blood from room 23 draining through here the ceiling will be flooded like a reverse punchbowl (gravity still goes ceilingward for the blood).
* There will be no light unless the characters bring it.
* The blood pool will be full of eerie glowing bioluminescent jellyfishlike sea creatures that evolved over the eons the blood has been there (due to a time distortion).
* 6 NEPHILIDIAN SPIES (Colorless Knights) are hidden among them in aquatic form; they will attempt to question the characters and then kill them.
* At the top of the dome (save to avoid drowning) are 10 gold ornamental stars in the walls worth 2,000gp each.
There is a complete lack of attention to any sort of descriptive text that is not immediately useful but encounters like this are pretty interesting, strange but still beholden to the triune of interaction/exploration/combat that makes up a lot of DnD.
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Do you like this section of prose? Or were you looking for the nitty-gritty rules interaction?
“These Rooks, recent inventions of the Colorless House, are hulking 50’ tall grotesques that lie inert for days at
a time. They outrank pawns, bishops and knights. Colorless Rooks are made from the remains of dead Pale Rooks (p.70): first the corpse is sat on a throne and enmeshed in a kind of rolling frame pulled by horses. Then the top of the Rook’s head is sawn off like the lid off a pot and the head is filled with sea water nearly to the rim. If a vampire then sits floating in the head, the Colorless Rook comes to life, and can act as a powerful battle oracle or magical battery.”
“Five brothers wearing transparent masks, crowded warmly, wrapped together in cloth
and in leather. Who are we?”
“The Sphinx hunts the Unicorn and never catches it. She views humans, vampires and the like as unthinking animals engaged in meaningless and random activity. She values books, which she consults for intelligence on
the Unicorn, and has, like most creatures of Voivodja, ideas. Unlike them, she is able to distinguish good ideas from bad ones.”
The thing as a setting is awful and unplayable. The adventure elements in it though are great to steal from. I used this when the PCs ended up breaking a mirror that lead to a pocket dimension and a related vampiric invasion, including the two factions and the chess piece like soldiers etc, along with the castle elements that they penetrated to stop the Queen of Hearts (they allied with the King). I find the “Alice” elements in this and other adventures to be not palpable for most longer term campaigns.
Actually think Zak’s Frostbitten setting to work better as an overall setting compared to his other works (have no idea how Blue Medusa actually plays since it just doesn’t comport well to a campaign other than maybe some of the NPCs).
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I can see someone porting stuff from it sure. I’m a purist at heart, I don’t fuck around too much with other people’s work if I run it and when I make my own stuff I usually homebrew everything but I can see it working.
Frostbitten…I am probably going to rewrite that one too when we get to it on the Artpunk Crusade. I remember feeling something was fucking off but besides accusations of autism its hard to figure out why it doesn’t work. There’s something about the tone that made it all feel pointless, like all the good stuff had been taken from mythology but it had been turned into something puerile and banal. Its hard to describe.
In light of some of your critique, I think it’s worth noting that the whole “D&D meets Alice in Wonderland” thing has been done before. It’s interesting to compare RaPL to Gygax’s EX modules, Dungeonland and Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. He clearly felt that a trek into Wonderland should be relatively short and sweet, and while the modules are relatively linear and are peak AD&D in terms of the encounter design, they’re tightly designed adventures that let players have cool interactions and combat encounters with Wonderland’s weird inhabitants I think a lot of the artpunk stuff would have benefited from greater focus on providing a tight and interesting adventure rather than these rambling setting books that end up lacking in depth. Deep carbon Observatory comes to mind as an adventure that does this and succeeds.
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Yeah. This book (which I haven’t actually read or even looked through because nothing I’ve heard about it, including this review, makes me think I would find it appealing at all) is begging for a compare/contrast against Gygax’s treatment of the same subject matter.
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Damn, looks like I opened up an entire set with this review. Okay, so that’s EX1 and EX2, Halls of the Blood King and while we are at it might as well pick up Ravenloft as contrast. Let’s go.
“It’s a damn tough life full of toil and strife // we reviewers undergo”
So, it seems one should port the first RaPL castle into Diogo Nogueira’s new work (Halls of the Blood King). Sounds like you should do a review of the latter, comparing the two…
Weird thing, whenever there is a Alice setting for RPG’s, everyone seems to forget the Jub-Jub bird or the Bandersnatch. It’s always either one or the other. This is the first time I ever saw them combined.
Also, I’m probably stupid, but did the Mad Hatter character sound really complicated to play or is it just me? Same with the Animal-Headed Guardsmen.
The Guardsmen were just animals at night and dudes with animal masks by day right? I don’t think you are stupid, The Mad Hatter only remembers the future, and he shifts through time. Yeah that would be pretty complicated to play. All these temporal tricks and traps can work in stories because they rely on an author carefully navigating you around the contradictions and keeping the story going long enough for it to reach the end while assuaging any sudden questions that might pop up so the reader doesn’t lose interest.
In an interactive format this is much harder, because some players might decide to actively look for ways to exploit or break these sorts of temporal paradoxes and the DM must suddenly figure out how a plethora of temporal resolution: if the future can be altered, how this interacts with the Hatter’s memory, what the actual 4d geometry of the Slow War is when you kill the Jabberwock etc. etc. Its an interesting concept that is best kept as a background detail.
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It was the Footmen in Livery who had a total of two forms per side. It was just really strange to understand because of how the Silent side worked.
Temporal Paradoxes have never been pulled off well in any adventure i can recall because it breaks a lot of up and downstream elements and is hard to ever frame around. Also would like to add Castle Drachfels to that list of products- it’s something i recently came across and i think a good historical point in time product to give framing to these types of products.
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I had a game that went about a year, and I just pulled a bunch of different modules and stitched them all together trying to tie in little bits of backstories for my players, and I ran this module and replaced a character with one of my character’s fey patrons. It was difficult as hell to explain to my players, and I tried to use the published stuff but ran into extreme difficulty trying to explain things. It’s also sparse as fuck like all Zak’s works, and I find it extremely stupid to travel to a new location and have paid money to read something like “an old man here is arguing with a fish about Christianity”. That’s the only thing for 5 miles, huh?
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On the plus side, you have managed to extend my maximum theoretical campaign duration of RaPl by a considerable margin. Did you ever get to do any of the two castles?
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Yeah, absolutely. They were in RAPL for 2 sessions, and the castle was definitely the centerpiece. The encounters, weirdness, etc. made my players kind of hesitant to poke around. Same when I gave them the magic painting from Maze of the Blue Medusa. They hopped in, were incredibly freaked out by the woman in chains (played Svartsinn in the background), and they immediately fucked off. Whenever I took the book out of my bag they cringed.
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“So against all the powers of heaven and hell I will do something which is exceptionally boorish and ask the question “but has anyone actually played it?””
A few years ago I dared to say in one of the reddit groups that I consider Vornheim, Red and Pleasant Land, and Maze of the Blue Medusa coffee table products people keep drooling over, but won’t end up using. To my surprise, Zak himself replied, saying he got feedback (or fanmail?) from hundreds of people who are using his books. I wonder how many of those were his sock puppets.
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I think hundreds of emails is probably a stretch considering the size of the printing runs but I believe him when he says Vornheim gets used a lot, there’s plenty of people in the OSR that mention that they use his tables etc. etc. RaPL is clearly more in the narrow range, but there are indeed people who have tried to run it. I think coffee table book is still a perfectly apt term because I do think the majority of those fans are normies who will praise something (usually with awards) to the stars without ever having played it or run it, or maybe they have seen one other campaign setting book, and the amount of long campaigns for RaPL appears to be damningly small. “Oh how diverting, let us pull out RaPl and spend an evening between Alice’s covers,” does seem to be the rule and not the exception.
Thanks for sharing reviews of Palace on Reddit btw. One does appear to have attracted some attention from the furry child grooming discord crowd but I will not ask my loyal warriors to expose themselves to Reddit in order to champion all that is good and just. I saw a thread on Lotfp core rules on /rpg/ and 75% was screaming about alleged racism and sex abuse in the OSR. What a shitshow. For the love of god keep those guys out of this segment of the hobby.
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“I think hundreds of emails is probably a stretch considering the size of the printing runs but I believe him when he says Vornheim gets used a lot, there’s plenty of people in the OSR that mention that they use his tables etc. etc”
I’m a bit skeptical about that. We are a bunch of people prone to overestimate the importance and usage of stuff we like. I do believe that a lot of people own Vornheim. I also believe a good chunk of them rolled on the tables, and some of them even used its results in games. The question is for how long, and I have a hunch that most of the time the novelty wore off after a few sessions or a short campaign, maybe with occasional glances at the book before returning it to the shelf.
Unfortunately I do this too. I praise The Tome of Adventure Design and the various Goodman Games alphabets a lot, because they are truly amazing and useful pieces, but the number of times I actually used them to improve my campaigns can be counted on one hand. Now that I think about it, if we don’t count core rulebooks the only books I actually actively used for several campaigns are the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set.
“Thanks for sharing reviews of Palace on Reddit btw.”
“For the love of god keep those guys out of this segment of the hobby.”
You’re welcome. Reddit is mostly fine, though like any community on the internet it does have its share of frothing idiots. Hopefully my shameless view farming didn’t guide any here. Worst case scenario, you can sell them some candles.
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I finished running MotBM like a month ago. I have a very solid opinion about it. Once Prince will do a review I can share mine experience.
Spoiler: Me and my party we liked it. There is a genius there. There are big issues as well.
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Feel free to tell us what you liked about i. It will take me a while to get to MotBM anyway, particularly because I don’t have a benchmark for Megadungeons yet (as in, I don’t know what makes a good one). I play in one fortunately so I have some basis of comparison but I want to do at least one well regarded one, maybe 2, before I get into it.
Patrick Stuart’s writing I have a sort of grudging admiration for. Very next level stuff. He can be sloppy but when it comes to imagination and imagery he is not easily matched.
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I would gladly hear more about your experience. I say take initiative and don’t wait for Prince! I’ve read MotBM when it was fresh, and I had mixed feelings about it. People praised the innovative layout, but I found it annoying thanks to the clunky and redundant section starters. They talked about interesting factions, but I felt they were passive and didn’t matter. The rooms showed some serious creativity, but plenty of them felt too nonsensical for players to figure out what to do with them – essentially turning interactive environment into just weird scenery. Heck, if you don’t give the information out to players they will get stuck right at the entrance… I wanted to like it, but by the time I finished the book all my intention to run it was gone. And I’m someone who loves and ran plenty of disjointed, weird, and messy adventures.
Sure, no problem. I will divide my opinion on some parts.
HOW IT’S DONE
First of all, I think you have to give praise for overall construction of this book. I don’t want to talk about how the book is produced – like Raggi once said “everybody can throw money to have high production values and nice looking book” and i kind of agree with this statement – I’m looking at you Mork Dork.
I own both physical copy and deluxe (lol) PDF version. They layout of this book is done in an outstanding way. Color coding, minimap, map pieces, very short, short and full description of rooms – it’s fantastic. It helped me very much with prep and doing my notes. This book is very easy to navigate for a megadungeon. In PDF you also have hyperlinks which helps a lot. I know people usually use this cliche when reviewing rpg products, but this one I actually felt like being designed with thinking about person trying to prepare to run it for his/hers group.
Small, but very useful thing (and I used it very often) is the cast of characters listet alphabetically at the end of the book with their short descriptions, where in the dungeon they are and “WANTS TO”, and “DOES NOT WANT TO” bulletpoints in one or two sentences. It again added great comfort to running this module as I was able to remember quickly during or before game session who is where and their goals. The bad thing here was that some of the characters were described only here. They were mentioned for example in description of the room they were in, but to find out who they are, what they want/do not want you had to check them in this appendix. I encountered this with at least more than 10 characters in the Maze so after a while I created a habit of checking every new character both in the room description and in the appendix.
Dividing the Maze on themed areas is very nicely done. They are very different from each other and I was even thinking that you can cut these color-themed areas from the Maze and use them as separate dungeons. Of course you would have to adjust some things, but it was doable in a fairly easy way. On the other hand – every area seems to have its small and unique plot and it might overwhelm the party. It’s really hard to stick with one thing in this place and to proceed with your goals.
Random encounters are so-so. Rather annoying than interesting. At one point I just stopped rolling for them, sometimes picking an encounter which would actually fit the area or narrative.
THIS MODULE HAS ITS SETTING
I want to punch Zak and Patrick in their faces because of this goddamn setting they have created. Not only you have over 300 rooms to prepare as a DM, but suddenly it turns out there is this massive metaplot about empire with history dragging over eons. Specific cultures, deities, politcs and based on it, this Maze was built. This world is described very briefly, but almost all NPCs and their relationships are based on this setting you know nothing about.
Why even bother? Why they created half-baked custom setting? I am pretty sure they had much more in their minds about how this world was set up, but they forgot to include it in this book. And now, you poor little thing, you have to not only think about preparing a megadungeon but also re-think all this structure and paste it into some setting. You will have to choices – either you go full Zak&Patrick with this setting and try to fill all the blank spots they have left you with, or you (like I did) think about putting it in some kind of another world. I guess saying “fuck it” and running it without any explanation is also possible. Roll random encounter and have fun!
This half-baked setting was something that very much crippled my prep and forced me to somehow re-imagine Maze. It ended in a very cool setting variant of mine – basically a Planescape mixed with nordic mythology, where planes are branches of Yggdrasil and three sisters Torn were the Norns (Urd, Skuld, Werdandi) but I had to put an extra effort to somehow stitch it so it would make at least any kind of sense. Oh, I also made Meduza the daughter of Tharizdun which was imprisoned here but that’s not the case. Long story short here: I had to add lots of extra effort.
WHERE ARE MY EMPTY ROOMS?
Every single room is occupied with something to interact with. Empty rooms are needed in dungeons to divide spaces between areas, for players to have a moment to think about next step, to barricade themselves and so on. In MotBM every single room gives you content. And don’t get me wrong – it’s usually very interesting content, but it strips your players from a moment to catch their breath. After a while, my players knew that every room will be occupied with something to interact with. That’s why they choose their exploration path very carefully. It also cripples your average rooms per session number. Some time ago we did math with our group and it turned out that on a usual dungeon crawl we explore 10-11 rooms per session. In MotBM it was 6 rooms per 3-4 hours session.
Every encounter here is weird. Almost everyone will do bad things to you or at least will have hidden agenda. I had a player who knows Z&P other books and he knew when I changed perception of some NPC by the simple fact – if they were friendly or neutral. Almost everything here is your enemy. It’s unplayable in this manner and I changed things here and there, so NPCs could be at least approched.
GET LAID FOR FUCK’S SAKE
There is a room where three pseudo-driads act as passive-aggresive and obusive girlfriends asking you jealous questions and being oppresive and shit. We played it. We fucking laughed out loud. My player (who knows Z&P) yelled during this scene/room “fuck you Zak Smith, fuck you Patrick Stuart”. It was the same in a room where cabbage baby heads are growing in the garden and asking you existential questions.
This is not critique, but just sharing my experience. This one is tough to prep when you are not native english speaker. You won’t be able to run it from the book. You will need your notes unless you are able to understand and translate room description on a fly. I have two notebooks of notes with over 200 A5 pages of notes for all the rooms. I had to do this for the sake of fluent gameplay. I know it’s maybe an overkill from my side, but I wanted this to be a smooth play.
You will find everything here being original. There are no classic monsters placed in MotBM. This module is filled with amazing ideas and is written in a very simple manner. I had no troubles understanding the language. Rooms description are short yet very imaginative. Characters like Xanthoceras, Chronia or No-Face were some of the outstanding points of my campaign.
I don’t want to describe everything that’s good about this module, because I would have to start recite certain rooms in this dungeon which gave us so much fun.
We had a great time. It was an amazing challenge for me to DM it. During our game my players explored somewhere near 80 rooms out of 304 (305 actually).
If any questions – feel free to ask.
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Thank you for taking your time for such a detailed response. I think our issues and what we liked are pretty similar, we just weighed them differently. Hats off for taking all the effort to make it work for you. I’m curious, how did the campaign end?
So, like I mentioned I used Planescape on Yggdrasil and Meduza was a daughter of D&D god Tharizdun. In original MotBM there is a room 274 where Dendrosathol (powerful devil) is imprisoned. Dendrosathol is the father of Medusa. I have replaced him with Tharizdun, the god of chaos.
One of the characters has freed a lot of imprisoned people during the course of our campaign. There is a demon at the beginning of dungeon (room 2) – Lady Crucem Capilli which told the party about Tharizdun. My player was very curious about the reason behind locking Tharizdun and the reasons he got from everyone in the dungeon was “he is pure chaos”. He didn’t consider it a reason and tricked the rest of the party into freeing The Chained God.
After this happened, they were teleported into space to see Yggdrasil burning and planes falling from its branches, colliding with each other, creating a new reality. Also, a short discussion with Tharizdun occurred. Everyone survived. Maze was destroyed.
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