Ashen Void (2022)
Albert Rakowski (Underworld Kingdom)
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There are two things in the OSR that I distrust the most; Setting neutral supplements and Toolboxes. Albert R., the author of the nonpareil World of Ortix Blog, has set out to prove me wrong.
I harbor a deep mistrust for toolboxes. I think the format encourages sloppiness, allows one to avert responsibility for the overall quality of the work and these qualities serve as magnets for all manner of unsavory creative types to vomit and squirt out their half-cogent musings onto a published format and any complaints r.e. the usefulness are gleefully reflected back onto the pitiable customer with a cheeky ‘no one else had a problem with it!.’ Likewise, the system neutral adventure is a brutish, lumpen creature, misshapen and half-formed, the peculiarities and elegances of a particular ruleset drowned out by its vulgar hoots, obscene crotch-grabbings and garish plumage. Somehow Ashen Void (and for that matter previous entries by Mr. Rakowski) avoid these problems with a wide birth.
It is all about being fit for purpose. Ashen Void establishes from the get go that it is no complete setting but rather a mosaic of entries, impressions, lore and scattered house-rules for something vaguely OD&D that together light enough fires in the brain to inspire the reader to create the connective tissue for a prospective campaign oneself. A challenging endaevour with but two requirements; you need to have actually have played D&D so you can figure out what are good details for it and you have to be very, very creative. I am talking Patrick Stuart chugging ayuasca from a beer-helmet creative. Its greatest strength and simultaneously the source of infinite sorrow is that Ashen Void is only 88 pages long, giving you just enough of a taste of this fantastical place to leave you famished and drooling for more.
Ashen Void describes a desiccated purgatory, a world like a dried-up seabed, steeped in immeasurable antiquity yet strangely timeless, its stars pitch black voids while its firmament is ablaze, sunless, where the players either end up from elsewhere or have been wandering so long they have forgotten. Through tables large and small, minor details, sweeping constructions, scattered elements, half-hinted creatures of fossilized bone and the power of evocative names, Rakowski transports us to a world that is just beyond our power to imagine. Somewhere beyond the wildest science fantasy and the oldest myth lies the Ashen Void.
There are only outlines. The Gods are dead. Iron falls from the sky, precious beyond counting, for all blacksmiths go mad after the third item they forge. Men live in scattered cities ruled by cruel despots, skulk in the poisonous mudflats paying service to sorcerous Giant Frogs, live in fear of the terrible angels that rule the heavens, and gather antlers and bones so they may unleash the stolen magicks that hide within. The South pole is wrapped in eternal darkness, and holds the first city, ruled by a cruel Empress. The North is ice, bissected by a great splinter of obsidean, piercing the heart of a god. Time and space are twisted like a moebius strip. Books are cursed. There are names, places and times. Ranath-Cardei. Zoraash. The Cathedral of Reversed Time. The Age of Monsters. The Eternal Columns.
There are possible origins for PCs. Do you hail from the frozen north, well versed in Ice, Mountain Lore & Beast lore? Are you a guardian of the Tomb-cities, bound by oaths to long-dead kings? Do you roam the west, performing generation-long pilgrimages that are themselves ineffable rituals, lost to time? Are you a city-dweller, adept at bribery, haggling and slavery? Or perhaps you are a scavenger, following the antlered Giants, picking over the scraps of their battlefields.
There are curses if one of your stats is exactly 13. Enchanted weapons lose their power in your hands. If you go blind you summon monsters attacking your mind. You are unable to speak any names. The only drawback to this table is that it is only a d10. The prospective buyer will have to riff off of this and make it into a mature d20, d50 or even d100 table.
There are the random traits for cities, Inner and Outer, these themselves holding hints of civilization in the Ashen Void. They are the cities of Howard’s Hyborea and Smith’s Zothique; nests of corruption, bribery, slavery, cyclopean architecture, gladiators, mausolea and god-kings.
These separate landscapes, the Holy City, the Inner and Outer Cities, the Western Wastes, the poisonous mud flats, the Tomb Cities and the altogether more remote and hostile realms of the north and south, are provided with encounter tables that serve to hint at their nature, rather then being immediately useable even if the stats were fleshed out. We understand the import of a City executioner bearing a huge Maul, or the branding of a thief, but what of a ‘Weaver of Night Silk’ encountered in the Holy Ruins? A rat catcher with a large white spider on a leash in the mud-city of Zoraash? It communicates a certain mood, with details about the level of technology and organization of society there for the taking if one cares to look. The Tomb Cities? We find the intriguing Wall of Questions, the awe-inspiring Ossuary of Molten Bones and the rather ominous sounding Devouring Tree. Ranath-Cardei? What of the customs of the Tribes of the West, or the 20 random Hermits, each with strange and dreadful abilities? But I reveal too much already.
How to fit all these bits together, and how to interpret them through the lens of D&D, is mostly left up to the GM. What classes do I use? Are the hermits equal to sages? There are only tantalizing hints. A few notes on spellcasting in the back of the book reveal much. Bones and antlers are used to create spell containers, the shamanic replacement for spell slots? Their relationship with Vancian casting, which is noted as still possible but dangerous, is hinted at but left obtuse. Spirits can gain possession of stolen spell slots. This is one section where I think more clarity, a full page directly useable for OD&D, would have been far more efficacious. As soon as actual game mechanics come into play maximum clarity is desirable, so innovation may proceed from a template. Interesting titles hint at possible spells. Mend Undead, Levitating Green Light, Attract Evil, Chilling Hoarfrost and See Through The Dead Eyes. The nature of sorcerers is passed over briefly but it is of course, a perilous art.
Almost half of the book is creatures, again, no stats, not even coherent backstories. Tables that act as hints, accompanied by scattered sentences, item titles and locations. Names are everything; The Effigy of Loss. The Giants, pursuing millenia-long solitary ambitions. Status, entry 7. “King (or queen), wearing armor made of dinosaur skin.” Cursed gemstones given life by the avarice of the Empress. The fossilized Necrosphinx. The sorcerous Nihil Warlocks, rumored to be the fate of all practitioners of magic. Globes filled with imprisoned events from bygone ages, worshipped by cultists, granting wishes at a terrible price. The imagery and possibilities, accompanied by unnerving AI art, is striking.
There is one intriguing element to Ashen Void that bears mention. The idea is that levelled characters are uniquely selected and when they reach a certain level (say 3), they must face off against a Beast, which seeks out the party. These are great and hint at a campaign outline, a sort of enthropic Hero’s Journey, where the PCs explore this crumbling ash heap, and each level up is punctuated by a fight with a legendary beast, eternally dying and reborn. They have terrific names and are like twisted signs of the Zodiac; the Roach, the Goat, the Schorpion & the Tormentor. Each one appears under different conditions. Each one with special abilities. Each one harder to beat then the last. The last is the Guardian Angel, astride the Celestial Gate, barring entry to the Breeding Pools, rumoured to be the cause of the decay of the world. It has never known defeat.
A book that offers only hints. Glimpses of a world of fossilized magicians, non-euclidean angelic predators, dead gods and barren city states. Perhaps Albert was bathed in the very light that I caught a mere glimpse of when I envisioned the Age of Dusk. It cannot be immediately used at the table, but perhaps its embers will kernel the bonfire of a singular and striking campaign. If not the book can be carved up, and motes and sparks will make their way into the fabric of many a home game.
There are very few people who produce work like this of tolerable, let alone exceptional quality. To stand in competition with an almost infinite multitude of blogs, books, games, movies and works of art that stretches back centuries and produce something that might actually inspire another man’s effort, not the fruit of one’s labors but a seed to kernel further labors, is an achievement that should be recognized. I don’t really know who would be better at this sort of thing.
For a fully playable setting generally you go for something a bit more standard to serve as a framework with a few memorable details, house-rulings and gygaxian building blocks that jump out but if your book is to inspire instead of facilitate then yes, it should be all bright sparks, each one transporting the GM to strange and unearthly vistas, and ignite in his mind the bonfires of Creation. Give me your Trials, your tomb cities, your south pole garbed in eternal midnight. Leave your economics and your equipment tables. Give me ossified sphinxes of bone, sorcerous toads, non-euclidean angels that prey on men and can be harmed only with weapons made of clay.
Is this better then Krshal? Who knows? I guess I will have to check that one out too. In a perfect world, the game of choice for Artpunkmen would be The Nightmares Beneath, Noisms would be writing material for Tekumél, Arnold K. would be on module duty, Geoffrey Mckinney would be the creepy old Uncle with sacred wisdom from the bad old days, Patrick Stuart would be the wise-cracking island-dweller whose barbaric ways produce fits of hilarity, Luka Rejec would make everyone coffee and Albert R. would be in charge of random table spamming. We want more, but it is probably good that we can’t have any more. We will have to do at least half the work ourselves.
Creativity aid, not creativity replacement.
Yes, Albert R. You can be our Artpunkman.
Can be checked out here.