Scourge of the Scorn Lords (2021)
Ahimsa Kerp & Wind Lothamer (Knight Owl Publishing)
Disclaimer: Sponsored content.
Gonzo is easy. Abandon the stringent demands of Gygaxian Naturalism and years of lore, flee child!, flee from the guiding light of appendix N!. Let us abandon the higher forms, cast away thought and dance as though we were not yet men! Yet for all the low barrier of entry, good gonzo is actually difficult to find. Good Gonzo is not a product of the mind, but a product of the gut, it is a flow, a vibe, a rocket-powered tricycle blazing through the streets, controlled by reflex and intuition.
There are two powers in the OSR that consistently produce good gonzo. Venger Satanis is the Wendy’s of Gonzo. Good quality, appeals to all, and laced with addictive psychotropic chemicals that slowly rewire your nervous system. Venger gonzo literally has all pop-culture references known to man. And then there are the other guys.
If you had asked me if it was possible to make off-brand gonzo I would have told you this is a contradiction in terms but somehow the Knight Owl guys pull it off. A pungent brew of 80s action shlock, Adult Swim fantasy, indefinable quasi-animu whiffs interlaced with literary allusions  projected with all the sugar-rush of a 12 year old, it’s the supplements put out after the Alzebo ate Raven Mcracken. Knight Owl stuff is WEIRD MAAAAAAN.
I was asked to review this and based on the strength of earlier products, I have gleefully accepted. Let’s dig in.
When last we left our heroes, they had put out two (2) supplements set in the dystopian gonzo hellworld of Meatlandia, the first in the Storm-wreaked Land of Fleshcraft and Chaos magic that is the main continent and its giant metropolis, the second in the oddly idyllic island of Annalidia, a picturesque stretch of North American wildlife park savagely disturbed by a brutal war of suppression. A complete tonal 90 degrees later, we are more or less back where we started; The Scorn Lands are a vast desert, below the continent of Meatlandia, protected from Chaos Storms by the power of its 7 god-like rulers, the Scorn Lords, the Scorn Lands read like someone crossed Dark Sun with Mad Max and finishes the Meatlandia Triptych more in the vein that it started, with screaming, overpowered abilities, dinosaurs, chariot chases, a bazillion candy classes, gladiators, marauders and the Mad Max Fury Road soundtrack running in the background.
What makes this gazzeteer work is that the Knight Owls have learned, visibly, their lessons from the previous works. Despite the batshit insanity of the setting the whole is tackled with a thoroughness, precision and a devotion to actual play that initially put me on the backfoot. The semi-unhinged two-fisted monkey style of Meatlandia is mostly absent, replaced with a methodical precision that occasionally blindsides you to the crazy shit that makes up most of its content.
First: The Premise. I don’t know if Meatlandia needed a backstory but fwiw it fucking has one. There are parallels with Dark Sun galore . A once fertile realm, a ruleress (now hated) calling upon dark powers left it barren, and created her children, the Scorn Lords, armed with god-like might, and from her blood and flesh, the Meat Lord. The power of the Scorn Lords keeps the Scorn Lands Chaos Storm free, but two thousand years of predation by immortal warlords in a mostly lifeless desert has done the place no favors, so it’s a question of whether people going for the Chaos Storms are not better off. A pitiless waste, its few cities ruled by nigh omnipotent overlords, populated by raiders, gladiators, mystics and zealots. Also a reference to Dune because if you do a desert you are contractually obligated to do at least one.
I mentioned utility right? Someone wanted to get a gold star for best behavior when they wrote this book. First pages, how content from the other two books can be used in this one. Considerate. Helpful. Saving the GM precious time. Then immediately, NEW MECHANICS.
Correct! You introduce them first! A much needed Dehydration mechanic is added, relatively simple to arbitrate yet impactful enough to make the wearing of heavy armor in this schorching climate a serious hindrance. Later on, new equipment is introduced to mitigate blistering heat, a constant menace that keeps sapping your strength, forcing you to find shelter and rest for a day or suffer disadvantage. Nothing in this wasteland is easy. Because of the heavy reliance on mounts, water requirements are provided for all riding animals, from medium sized to Gargantuan (Triceratops etc. etc.) in Gallons. One CRUCIAL omission; the weight of one Gallon of water is nowhere discussed. A workaround can be found, but this is a shame I think.
The tone of the Scorn Lands is then described, but it is something that we already understand intuitively, from the skull-helmet wearing marauders, from the chariots with naptha flamethrowers and from the horrors that prowl the wastes.
The Sandbox-ness of Scorn Lands is real, perhaps more so then Annalidia and Meatlandia, but it falls just short of a hex crawl. We get a map, somewhat small in the PDF, divided into grids, with important settlements marked. Then a short gazzeteer, 2 paragraphs per city, naming only the Scornopolises, some features and what you can drink there, which works much better then it should.
THE CITY OF JOY This ill-named tower is neither a city nor a place of any joy. A bleak encampment of Barren Elves and their struggling captives, any who wander here without a token of Rabid Jack are attacked on sight. Rabid Jack concerns himself little with the habits of his servants as long as they serve him without question. If humans want food or drink here, they must forage, hunt or dig it from a spring.
The postapocalypse is strong. Dust City. The Bone Fortress. Scorn Town. Wogsalg. The power of crude titles, stripped of any cultural allusion, implies a Zero History, a changeless place that never learns or grows. The saving throws every day cement the struggle of man against this place of death. It is no coincidence that the Scorn Lands are FILLED with creatures and powers that inflict permanent damage to your hit points or abilities. This is a place that wears one down.
There is an astonishing variety of random encounters, some divided by region , but there are overlapping tables, offering contact with agents of the Scorn Lords, whose friendship, or enmity, the characters are inevitably going to incur. There are also natural disasters and randomly generated villages. It uses the OSR standard, so fairly specific encounters, but the variety (a separate d12 for each Scorn Lords personal domain, which only replaces PART of the overall random encounter), might be enough to last you quite a while before repetition sets in. In general when you create large sandboxes that are meant to last for 40+ sessions it is better to have large tables of fairly sparse description so the GM can riff off and add his own flair to it. I know I know BUT PRINCE EVERYTHING ON ENCOUNTER TABLE SHOULD AM DOING SOMETIGN. NO ZAK. Check this out Boners.
Village of the problem that has no name. The tyrannical Verglas rules 99 women through fear, threats and psionics. Out of fear, the women don’t ask for help but if he is defeated they rejoice and award the PCs with the title Friend of the Hapless
That’s a good encounter. That being said, this is only a d12 table. For a REGION TYPE I can be reasonably sure I’ll run into that d12 table a lot. Scorn Lords largely AVOIDS this mistake by also adding a subtable for Scorn Lord Domain, and has a mother encounter table that also includes villages, weather, scorn agents and nothing (1-11). The point is that with a sandbox you want to create a ROBUST AND FLEXIBLE system that lasts for a while, not a system of highly specific but few encounters. This works.
This is a Knight Owl Games supplement so of course there are Candy Classes . Candy Classes are special classes that you play if you get bored of the regular stuff. I think every campaign setting that wants to label itself as anything other then classic/vanilla should consider  having one new class, if only an obscure one to differentiate itself. This is gonzo, so RESTRAINT is not our objective AND THEREFORE WE HAVE…4 CLASSES. Two of them are kind of new, the FADE is a sort of desert skulk that is unremembered and can go unseen and backstab, but your party might forget to resurrect you, the MONSTER HONCHO should have been called the Beastmaster and is a lightly-armored fighter and master of the wild and then we have a Psionicist Class and a Three-Kreen (Myrmeke) without psionics class. Seriously, say, THANK YOU TROY DENNING-SENPAI in your foreword.
Psionics is a simple but robust B/X take on the whole, you start with all powers, but some might be unavailable because they cost too much, you have relatively few PSP, no wacky attack modes or ability score modifiers, and that’s all she wrote. I’m not very familiar with the power set in AD&D but from what I read it seems to be a pretty faithful adaptation, with everything from Aura Reading, Foresight, Telekinesis & Mental Blast making an appearance. I do not generally consider how easy it is to lift things from a setting and apply them to your own game, but this class is fairly easy to port wholesale.
Adventuring gear, another surprisingly thoughtful expansion. Minor items like keffiyeh or glare goggles provide limited protection against the omnipresent wilderness effects. That’s good. D&D is a game of layered difficulty, and beginner traps and precaution are as much a part of that as advanced tactics against more sophisticated opponents. A keffiyeh is 1 bucks and 5 weight, almost always worth it, but will you sink 200 gp into crystal glare goggles I wonder? I am going to bitch. THEY SHOULD HAVE ESTABLISHED THE PRICE OF WATER IN THIS DESERT HELLHOLE. Fuck it, pull a Patrick Stuart, say WATER IS A CURRENCY. It’s hacky but why not? Then give it a gold piece weight and value. Done. Instant game mechanic.
There’s also some new armor types that are alright, and the obligatory piecemail armor rules that feel like an afterthought and are mostly there so you can flex and be all post-apocalyptic. Hardened kelp mail and raider armor introduces a 2eism, the thief skill penalty for heavier armor types, but this is not what is best in life. Then it’s all exotic weapons from the RC; Bolas, Mancatchers, Caestus, net, Trident, Chain. Good stuff, with the exception of the Scorn Lands Spear and Spiked Staff, which are simply better then their counterparts and render most normal weapons obsolete (2d6 for a 2-handed weapon that costs 7 gp?).
WHAT IS BEST IN LIFE PRINCE?: Fucking Chariots pulled by Dinosaurs. Terror Bird Mounts. Howdahs on your Ankylosaur. Caltrops. Flamethrowers that shoot greek Fire. Ballistas. Grappling Hooks. Rules for max speed, cover, occupants, hull points, blades on your wheels. IT IS ALMOST GREAT. I feel Scorn Lords would have done well to study Redline, one of the most obscure, and solid, Mad Max d20 supplements out there. A horse can move like a person but Chariots and Ankylosaurs at full speed should have some sort of maneuverability. Also a map doesn’t make sense if you are doing a chase, so some sort of relative combat terrain should have been implemented. This is, again, not groundbreaking, but it means that if I want to do vehicle combat, its not going to look much like the car chases that I want it to look like. A few tweaks would have finished it, as it is, it feels a little incomplete. It is, however, pretty awesome to have something to sink all of your gold in. Get a tricked out Howdah on an Ankylosaur, flamethrowers and ballistas set up, then travel without heat exhaustion because of the shade, hell yeah.
One of the best sections is probably the Scorn Lords proper. 7 bad motherfuckers, all evil, all different. Killing them in direct combat is almost impossible. They feel like something out of Fist of the Northstar or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures. Many have powers that will inflict permanent damage upon their opponents, and each has the ability to negate hits at least 3 times per day.
Argon is green skinned, with long hair pulled into a topknot. His hearty beard and mustache fill most of his face. His brilliant white trousers match an equally white blouse. He stands over 6’7”.
Drago appears to be the eldest Scorn Lord. His long white beard protrudes in all directions, obscuring his face with the help of a large top hat. His long brown coat hangs to the middle of his sturdy boots. He stands just under 11 feet tall.
These are probably the most creative sections of the whole, but they are optimalized very well for sandbox play. Each is described in terms of enemies, allies, personality, flaws, how they contact the characters and how much fighting men they can levvy, which brings us to another lamentable omission A MASS COMBAT SYSTEM MAN. YOU CAN’T TEASE US WITH DARK SUN AND THEN NOT HAVE ONE. OSE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE ONE? IS IT TOO MUCH TROUBLE TO JUST COPY PASTE THE WARMACHINE RULES FROM THE RULES CYCLOPEDIA ALREADY?
Please don’t take my criticism as condemnation. This is one of their most solid works, but at the same time it is easy to see points of improvement. You are dragged into a world of uberpowerful Dragon Ball Z rejects, one of which can literally create a team of henchmen that are the PCs evil clones. There’s a hot tall babe with a host of war goats. There’s a teal monk who can summon d12 demon heads. Their abilities are insane, if you kill them everyone who sees the deed loses 1 HD permanently and the killer gets their power for 1/day. It’s Highlander on high-octane crazy blood. It’s fucking great.
The Monsters do not disappoint. Exploding sheep whose explosion can give both permanent boons and banes, hideous barren elves that permanently steal wizard’s spells and intelligence, monsters of bone or porcelain with mummifying gazes, chitin golems, sonic gecko’s, Vultards. Marauders, gladiators & flesh-crafted Blood priests from the Meat Lands. Mrain Boles to avoid the copyright. Heh. The high point appears to be the Nega-mages, offspring of the Scorn Lords, drawing their power from fossilized worm honeydew. It’s got that up to 11 feel.
I think the core of the Scorn Lands probably works. There’s a few hints dotted throughout about old cities dating back to a time before the desert, and there’s a shitton of starting hooks, random starting locations, randomly generated villagers (3 d12 times 6d10 possibilities, should serve for a bit), with a little bit of a bite, just enough to make them memorable, just generic enough that repetition is unlikely to grate over a prolonged period of time. Name, stats, profession, looks, a noteworthy detail and a secret desire. The point is that most of your game is probably going to be ultra-violent politics and machinations, or dying in the desert, with less room for dungeoncrawling.
Maybe what could be added are some more adventure locations? The cities, NPCs, random encounters and places work reasonably well, but some more permanent features probably would have fleshed it out more. A graveyard for Sandworms, a sunken city that is rumored to have once held the Library of the Scornlands, a nomadic horde of bandit-merchants…something other then the Scornlords proper. Maybe a legendary one-eyed Allosaur that is rumored to be immortal?!? And yeah, you can find the location of Belinda Blood’s soul, solving the mystery that Part II would set up, but that’s one hook.
The random encounter stuff works, don’t get me wrong
Idyllic castle, home to Lady Lomond’s band of 7 nega mages. Most nega mages live alone, but here seven of them have banded together under the leadership of Lady Lomond in a pale reflection of the Scorn Lords. Though they plot to overthrow the Scorn Lords, they are but children playing games and their machinations merely amuse the Scorn Lords.
And sometimes its just serviceable
Ambush of fade assassins (1 per party member) with deadly weapons: when they hit, save vs poison or die
Or even rudimentary
There’s good player aids. Thirst and heat trackers, sheets for writing down villages, oases, it’s got it where it counts.
Scorn Lords is a more mature product then Meat Lords, but something of the initial crazy fucking fire has been lost. Despite that, it manages to distinguish itself from its predecessor and stand on its own without shame. These things are the fastfood of campaign settings, short, punchy, and probably refined enough to last you for a decent-sized campaign. It’s not something that will be replayed endlessly or something that allows for a great variety of playstyles, but what it is offering is pretty good if you are into this sort of thing. Get yourself a tricked out howdah on a triceratops with flamethrowers, make an all bugman team, double-cross the Scorn Lords, fight your evil twins and die in a fucking ditch, clutching your last unicorn horn. Live a little. Likely as a break between more long-form campaigning, or perhaps you are that one 240 pound metalhead GM that just can’t get enough of this. I fucking miss you man.
I’d give it about a ***. Good, but not Meatlandia V2 good. Kent’s rating suggestion looms ever in the background of my thoughts. And remind me to review The High Moors OSE and probably bump it up.
 Edgar Allen Poe. Cormac McCarthy. Who the fuck makes Wasteland Gonzo and includes T.S. ELLIOT REFERENCES? I MEAN WHO?!?
 Maybe the one sour spot is the lack of a respectful nod in that direction. OSE is given credit for a lot of the core material (in itself strange), but nary a word for Dark Sun. They give plenty of shoutouts in the KS though.
 There is nothing that quite cements the importance of different terrain like different encounters. An ideal sandbox is one that presents a sprawling landscape but also one where one EXPERIENCES the sense of travel.
 A term coined by the great Squeen, a tenfootpole.org forum poster with a rabid hatred of the same, who believes that special classes appeal to the worst in humanity and are generally a gateway to all sorts of unseemly practices like fudging dice, rerolling hit points, 4d6 on character creation, starting at level 10 and rampant sodomy. He is not wrong.
 Consider does not mean it is mandatory to do so however.