The Gnomes of Levnec (2013)
Zzarchov Kowolski (Neoclassical Geek Revival)
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Gotta get the review backlog to reasonable levels. Gnomes of Levnec is a Kowolski regular. The characters are introduced into a semi-naturalistic low-fantasy environment that has several ongoing difficulties and there is no pre-fixed resolution that will satisfy all of them. Gnomes is part of the same campaign as A Thousand Dead Babies and set in against the same backdrop of quasi-medieval Europe, though the connection is explained in the foreword and the two can easily be run separately. It is also strange.
In the forests of the east, almost a century after the western crusaders came and did battle with the pagans and the dwellers of the forest, paganism still lingers. The Backwater village of Levnec has a problem; villagers are going missing, and the rest is refusing to work, even after repeated violent beatings by his retainers. The villagers blame the Gnomes. Time to GET 2 IT.
Simple hook, nuanced execution, thick faery-tale vibe mixed with a crapsack village, I am reminded of something like Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher. What appears at first glance to be a straightforward solution gradually gets mired in a swamp of ambiguity. The Lord is clearly a brutal fucking asshole. The villagers are an oppressed and surly lot and they lost a lot of people during the winter, but they also ate the Gnomish tinker because the local priest said he was essentially a clever beast and thus man held dominion over him. The disappearances are of course caused by something completely unrelated and the Gnomes themselves…we will get to that.
I think the trick to something like a mystery, ambiguous moral dilemma is to immerse players so they get invested and Gnomes does a good job fleshing out its various NPCs and the surrounding area without taking up too much space. We are trusted to infer the resources of a starved, small village somewhere near a great nameless forest. Critical individuals are fleshed out with a paragraph of well-placed text.
The meat of the adventure is in the forest and its various locations. It is probable the PCs will have to wander through the forest, looking for some sign of the Gnome Village. The random encounters are designed to facilitate the PCs in ending up in one of three locations; Old roads, gnome trails, earthen mounds, all these can guide the PCs to their destination. Some of them are quite deadly too, a swarm of cannibal squirrels leaping out of a stuffed wolf corpse can spell doom for an unarmored and curious PC, and there’s a (rare) occurrence where the PCs see a band of Wodewose (the man-eating forest-dwellers) trapped in mud, taunted by Gnomes, that should clue them in on what is actually happening.
Do I tackle the Gargamel reference? The point is that Gnomes smell delicious and eating their flesh gives a boost to magical power. There’s a twist to the standard theme of a small village of innocent friendly gnomes (that smell and taste delicious) besieged by enemies that try to eat them for their magical power that is CLASSIC Kowolski: i.e. fucked up but clever and fun.
There’s hidden depth in this adventure, by which I mean the scenario can unfold in ways that most adventuring parties are unlikely to hit, but when they do the results are likely to be spectacular. This is something I appreciate, it reintroduces a sense of wonder to DnD, the idea that GREAT secrets could be hiding in the most innocuous places.
This is not a complicated dungeon-bashing scenario or one of strategic pitched-battles (maybe the attack on the temple of Velen in the centre of the forest could count), but it IS an adventure in the true sense, where the PCs are thrown into a volatile situation, and their actions are likely to determine the particular direction the chain reaction of explosions is likely to be directed at. And if your PCs are amoral scumbags just looking for enough gold (or silver in the case of NGR) to fill their backpacks to the brim, then by golly they can certainly get their rocks off with this fucking thing.
The scenario works well for both OSR games and Kowolski’s own NGR (a type of very advanced dungeons & dragons) and there’s a clear understanding of the basics. The whole has a level of meta-irony to it that is just enough, never obtrusive. Do I get into the new magic spells; Avenging Bolt, Open Sesame! Stone Spirit and the terribly irresponsible Beckon the Dragon, these are good spells, seeming to slot in with the existing roster while retaining a sort of wonder to them that would be missing in a lot of D20 dreck (minor orb of acid, cure semi-critical but not wounds etc.).
Give it a whirl. Have your injured PCs get devoured by cannibal squirrels. Eat a whole village of fucking gnomes for magic power. Fight dragon cultists alongside gnome commandos. Watch the village burn down in flames as a sickly albino dragon lays waste the region. Live a little.
This is a fine scenario, especially considering its short length. There’s a style to this type of writing that goes a bit farther then the faerie tale dungeon crawling of WD 39’s Daughter of Danu or Gavin Norman’s Winter’s Daughter. There’s traces of the more free-flowing styles of the traditional RPGs without regressing to the loathsome scene-based design most of them would eventually degenerate into. Interactive is the operative word. The village doesn’t have the amount of detail of the superlative T1 but there is always just enough to make it feel like more than a backdrop against which you can kill goblins in a well.
This is Kowolski on point, superior to the comparatively simple The Pale Lady, not quite up there with the intricate Scenic Dunnsmouth. Everyone chant it with me. Zzarchov Kowolski is underrated.
Check it out here.