Friday, 29 June 2018

OSR PDF Reviews # 1 (Review Guidelines + Stark Naked Neo Savages and Sanguine City States Vol. 3)

There is a dizzying proliferation of OSR material to be accessed at the moment. RPGNow et al have opened a veritable pandora's jar of independent RPG product publishing. Each each day the stuff you could use to run a game of d&d multiplies like some ever expanding and glorious fungus. Much like fungus, this stuff is often left in the dark, left to wither and rot - rather than consumed and digested in the glorious pure sunlight of the open air. Unfortunately, we are all drowning in this glut of a golden age  and too often things are getting overlooked and ignored juts because there is a sea of stuff to swim through.

The purpose of this post, and hopefully future posts like it, is to grab some things from the pile and give them a once over. I'm going to try and be critical, objective and give feedback to the creators of the things I review. I also want to suggest why/how it might be useful to other people running OSRish tabletop games and why they might consider picking it up.

Guidelines and criterion for me reviewing something:
  • Vaguely OSR in nature (whatever that means[probably means tagged as "OSR" at RPGnow]). I am unconcerned with what"genre" it might be, because I think you can mash most things into any game anyways. 
  • I will favor things that aren't overly specific to a single ruleset.  
  • I currently don't have any interested in reviewing rule books. I already run some bastardized set of rules that changes from week to week so I don't need any new ideas. I am interested in adventure locales, bestiary, generators, DM tools, etc. 
  • I'm probably not too keen on custom character classes stuff as they are too close to a rulebook. 
  • I will probably focus on PWYW/free stuff. People are putting out a lot of great stuff for free and they atleast deserve some feedback as meagre payment.
  • That is unless some one throws me a review copy of something/I am really excited about something. 
  • I will focus on independent DIY publishers (whatever that means [probably means they don't have a marketing department/are one person]) 
How I will pick what I review: 
  • I will ask people if they want me to review their stuff and if they do, I will. Email me (mraston@iinet.net.au) or contact me on G+ if you have something you want me to review. 
  • I will go to the "OSR" section of RPGNow and scroll through newest releases. Whatever is free/PWYW and grabs my attention I will download and review. Cover and title probably play an important part in me pulling something randomly from the pile of stuff available. 
Some notes on my reviews: 
  • I will come into every product as blind as possible. I will ignore product pages/descriptions/peripheral blog posts/etc as much as possible. I don't want to write reviews that sound like marketing copy. 
  • Further, I am going to review things as is, this may impact things that are part of a larger whole (zines, gazettes, etc). This is just to avoid having to get all the copies in the interest of ensuring appropriate context (I will not ensure appropriate context). 
  • I am going to try my best to be constructive and helpful in my feedback, because I understand these things as labors of love. If I seem overly critical it probably wasn't my intention. 
  • I am going to assume that most people won't run any OSR product completely "as is" but will meld the content within to suit and incorporate into their existing campaign world/game. This informs some of the review headings (see below).
  • Additionally the review headings kind of assume that every one running an OSR game is running either a Hexcrawl, Urbancrawl or Megadungeon. I am sorry if you find that offensive (see below). 
  • Urbancrawls are probably rarer than the other two types of campaign but its what my game is at the moment so I have included it! 
Final Notes:
  • I don't know how long this will last for/how regularly I will do it .
  • That said if you do send me a review copy of something you normally charge  money for I will ensure I review it. 
Review structure: 

Currently, this is how the reviews are going to look.

What is it?  Description of the product as a whole/overall vibe of the thing as I see it. Will try and make these pithy and useful.

Strengths? What is good about the product. 

Weaknesses? What could be better within the product.

How could you use it in your hexcrawl? If you are running an overland hexcrawl type campaign, how this product could be immediately useful to you.

How could you use it in your urbancraw/megadungeon? If you are running an urbancrawl/megadungeon type campaign, how this product could be immediately useful to you. 

I will also try and include an image or two from the product.

Today's Review: 

Stark Naked Neo Savages and Sanguine City States, Volume Three. 

Evocative map and location names.

Burning flame AI god.

What is it? 

Dreamlike descriptions of a cyberesque/toxicwaste realm of a preplanned apocalypse. Descriptions of two major regions/locales (The Only City and The Burning God)  from the map pictured above. A lurid, psychedelic outline of forlorn and ruined adventuring regions (much more dark night of the soul stuff than questing for gold and glory/keeping the world safe stuff).

Strengths? 

The Art: Everything is dripping with a toxic, hyper colored yet out-of-focus miasma. Goes very nicely with the writing and the clean, clear, sci-fi layout/font. I felt like I was peering out of a sanitized, safe spaceship at a fucked up landscape I was glad to not be fully immersed in. The art hints at great and terrible things rather than illustrating them in specific details.

The Writing: Wafts over you like a gas cloud of narcotics. I enjoyed every word, which like the art drips with atmosphere. Interesting locales described in sparse but impactful detail. It throws you into the deep end. When you begin reading you feel a little lost, but hints in the writing bubble up as a guide. A lot is said in a very small amount of words. Strong imagery and tone (reminded me a lot of Dark Souls item/spell descriptions).

I honestly felt a little creeped out reading it . The writing and art work together to get under your skin.  The locations felt real and ominous and horrible. That's the kind of place I want to send my players to.

Finally, I wanted more. I felt disappointed once it ended (especially as I thought I might get every location listed on the map). I also wanted to know what the hell was going on here. The god AI description hints at this place being some seeded, sculpted and designed world that has some how gone wrong. I like those hints and would like finding out those secrets with my players at the table. I much prefer to be left wanting more, wondering and intrigued about a place rather than feeling over engorged with context and exposition. 

Weaknesses? 

Lack of concreteness: As much as I like the gaseous, ephemeral and dream like nature of it all, everything sorts of floats by without being able to grab it and nail anything into place.  I would like some harder hooks and structure so I could actually run the place as the table. The best illustration of this is the "Why the fuck are you arresting me?" table. This d6 table gives some great insight into the kind of mean and paranoid place The Only City is. The society hinted at in this table is horrific and nasty and cruel. The problem is I don't know what the hell is actually doing the arresting? What do these officers of the law look like that are arresting my players for petty and inane crimes? I don't even need a stat block, I just need a quick sketch of what separates a law agent from a civilian in the The Only City.

As brilliant as the writing is, it doesn't go much further than acting as an introduction. I wanted more. I wanted a hex map, I wanted hex descriptions and I wanted specific NPC descriptions. I probably wouldn't even want /need specific stat blocks (I feel that might cheapen the experience) but I need to know some details of independent agents in this world. I also need to know what separates one hazy stretch of wasteland from the next, and one wretched, disintegrating citizen/building from the next in The Only City. The specifics wouldn't need to be all that detailed. What is here is evocative enough, I just need a couple  points of specificity in terms of where things are and what they do, to actually run this at the table.

How could you use it in your hexcrawl?

The Only City, the urban center described in the PDF, would be great base for a lunatic insular starving city in the wilderness. A place that at first seems  like it would grant rest and succor but quickly turns into an above ground dungeon for your players. The residents are skinny and ignore the players. The players would be like ghosts until The Only City had enough of their intolerable existence and attempt to imprison or kill them. A town that is a dungeon that allows the players to drift in, maybe right to the center, before turning on them sounds like a fun scenario to run. You will need to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of specific NPC details and mapping but the outline is there and interesting.

How could you use it in your urbancrawl/megadungeon? 

The Burning God makes a great dungeon/building boss. Ideas: It has captured a bunch of people inside its wall (ala Shodan/System Shock). Maybe the walls themselves are its ancient quartz circuitry, lots of alien/ancient computer technologyu magic items to be found. Lots of burning/different types of flames. There is work you will need to do: Plot out what exactly the AI cultists are like, whats the deal with the mushrooms, and obviously map the dungeon. There is a great scene to be witnessed with what is written here: Innumerable robed dead and decayed figures, frozen in bowed stances of capitulation to some enormous central flame -starving figures pick through the corpses in cowed and terrified flinching from the god flame. That's worth the bit of work required though right?