Sunday 28 October 2018

[Review] Obscene Serpent Religion

You are not trve kvlt if you can't decipher
the author's name.
Reading Obscene Serpent Religion 2 got me in the mood of checking out Obscene Serpent Religion. Unlike OSR2, OSR1 is not an adventure module, but a supplement devoted to generating serpent cults. That should be enough to justify its existence. Who doesn't have evil snake-worshippers in his fantasy campaigns after all? They are as crucial tropes of a healthy swords & sorcery setting, as evil frog-worshipping cults, or evil spider-worshipping cults.

The book is made of 32 weird 7.5 x 7.5 inch sized square pages. The cover looks like that of a death or black metal album's, and the black & white interior follows the gimmick too. Needless to say, those faint of heart should avoid the product, for there is plenty of gore and nudity within. Most illustrations are exceptionally well done and detailed, save for the last one which looks like something made with Microsoft Paint.

The first half of the supplement is about generating the features of the cult. You can find out what are they ways of the church, who the goddess is, what her teachings are, what missions do the leaders send the members on, et cetera. We aren't talking about tables here in the traditional sense. Each element has six possible results, each explained in a few paragraphs. While six doesn't seem too much, there is plenty of rolling to do until you get the end result, thus it's unlikely you will end up with a similar outcome after multiple usage.

The entries show a rampant imagination behind them. They can add a lot of depth and character to the sect, and can fire up the GM's creativity about how to further expand them - especially the bizarre, seemingly contradictory combinations. The author also proves that serpent faiths don't necessarily mean cloaked dudes worshipping ophidians - they can also be fertility cults, art idolizers, fortune seekers.

My favorite results are those with an ancient, mythic feel. For example:

"She gave birth to the moon, which was the first egg, and when it hatches, all will be devoured. She immolated her husband, who became the sun. His name is forgotten, for he is of no consequence. The Goddess is life, the Goddess is all."

That's evocative, and if you roll with it as truth it can bring some unique flavor to your campaign world. The moon is way too often underused in fantasy campaigns anyway, surprising your players with turning it to a literal snake egg sounds way too cool to not use it once in your life.

Unfortunately the book is not devoid of the edginess of typical LotFP products. Case in point, here is a quest for advancement within the cult:

"In a public place, you must force a serpent into the body of a powerful foe with many allies. The result must be fatal, regardless of whether the serpent is shoved into the victim’s mouth, or into a wound, or in some other part of the body."

I like the irony how the hole everyone first will think of is not mentioned among the examples. Still, the above was one of the tame options. There are others with more mutilation and sadism. Around the Tenets of Faith and Quests for the Hexagram was where I noticed the major difference between OSR2 and OSR1: the former pits the PCs against a cult, while the latter assumes they are the members of one. While I have no issue with having a serpent-worshipper or two in the party, I would avoid most of the tenets and quests presented, because they are just wanton torture porn.

After generating the faith's details come the appendices. The first is for generating random NPCs, and has plenty of names, epithets, situations. The only place where its lacking is the random items they are carrying. The second is encounters in the wilderness. It requires three rolls too to find out who the party meeets, what they are doing, and what they are carrying. Solid chart, well worth injecting into your campaign if the serpent cult becomes a prominent feature  of it. Third and fourth are two magic items. Sable Nectar is created from Sweet Nectar and the blood of a half-serpent creature. The juice grants random bonuses for 1d6 hours, at a cost - like blindness, or losing abiltiy score. Scarlet Nectar is made of Sweet Nectar and the blood of a snake. Its effects depend on what kind of snake's blood was used. Predictability has its cost too, though: drinking Scarlet Nectar is considered blasphemy by snake cults. The book ends with stats for Skin Vessels, which follows the good old (but not overused) cliché of a body filled with wriggling and writhing creatures - this time with snakes, of course.

Obscene Serpent Religion is a mixed bag. It's an evocative book, but some of the ideas you can end up with don't live up to their full potential. I understand it was meant to be an LotFP product. It's just a pity that if it wasn't one, it could have ended up with being something so much more. Its usefulness can also be limited depending on how prominent role are you planning to give the serpent cult(s) in your campaign. Still, it's a relatively cheap sourcebook with some excellent ideas. Having it on your shelf won't hurt.

Tl;dr: Obscene Serpent Religion is an imaginative supplement that limits its potential to fit the grimdark edgy weird fantasy of LotFP. You can buy the pdf on DriveThruRPG, and the paperback on Lulu.

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Thursday 25 October 2018

Christmas in October

Last year I celebrated the arrival of my ZWEIHÄNDER rulebook with a post called Christmas in September. Little did I know back then, that next year I will cherish the arrival of another similar release: Cubicle 7's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition. Like its cousin, it's a sight to behold, but that's the least one should expect that from the publishers of The One Ring RPG. Embossed cover, beautiful full color interior, overwhelming book smell... Browsing through the tome felt like opening the WFRP2e rulebook years ago, which was the first English rpg I bought. If it managed to achieve something, it's whetting my appetite for more, and convincing me to pre-order the Starter Set too.

That cover looks awfully familiar...

This doesn't mean the end of my ZWEIHÄNDER campaign of course. My party just reached second tier, and I got the MAIN GAUCHE supplement's early access, which is full of juicy content we can't wait to try. Neither will I start a parallel campaign. My hands are already full with running ZWEIHÄNDER and HackMaster. For the first time in many years I am going to be a player. I can't wait to jump into the Old World and try the new edition! There are rules I'm excited about, there are rules I'm skeptical about, and there are rules I'm curious about. Once I got my feet wet expect a review about the game.

Sunday 14 October 2018

[Review] The City That Dripped Blood

The cover promised me a huge ass dinosaur,
but all I got was a 3 HD giant lizard.
The City That Dripped Blood is the result of a crowdfunding campaign started by Frog God Games this August. You would think there is nothing new under the sun, but that's far from true: this time the campaign wasn't on Kickstarter, but on indiegogo, and it wasn't gathering funds to release another massive tome, but to publish a short module - the first product of a four part series. Badass title, a premise reminiscent of R. E. Howard's Red Nails, and an initiative worth supporting - needless to say I threw some money at them without thinking. Things started to look even brighter as the updates came in: not only did Frog God Games get the talented Michael Syrigos to do the cover, but they also managed to finish the book early: instead of January the pdf arrived early October. The review will be about the Swords & Wizardry edition.

The City That Dripped Blood is a 23 pages long adventure. The cover is a sight to behold, an astonishing piece that effectively evokes the classic howardian sword & sorcery feel using a style similar to Frank Frazetta's. The interior is full color, with solid illustrations, an abstract city map, and a page of uninspired dungeon maps. Layout follows the usual two-column Frog God Games template. At first glance everything appeared nice and dandy, but once I started reading the book thoroughly, issues began to surface.

I was startled for a second when the back cover told me that this is a 5e adventure for 4th-level characters. I had to double check if I got the correct edition. Such mistakes are not surprising from Frog God Games - just ask someone with the S&W version of Stoneheart Valley about the Pathfinder logo under the sticker. Nevermind, I don't make a big fuss about honest mistakes. On the other hand, my pulse swiftly rised when I reached pages 2 and 3. The City That Dripped Blood became the first book that pissed me off with its Table of Contents. Not only it is a waste of valuable space that could have been used for content, but it is so useless and uninformative, we wouldn't have lost anything if it was left out. Thank you very much Frog God Games, but I can figure out by myself that the adventure begins at the beginning of the book, and the Legal Appendix nobody reads is in the back. At least the digital version is properly bookmarked.

Why even bother?
The adventure was written for a group of 4-6 characters of levels 4-5. Extraplanar vulture-men called skelzis became vampiric thanks to the magical blood orchid, and with the help of their weredactyl servants rule over the forgotten desert city of Temelpa. The population consists of humans, who wear masks to show their place in the rigid caste system, and halfling slaves, who worship a helpful aranea. Instead of burial or funerary pyres the residents practice a ritualized form of cannibalism. Hiding in the city live a small number of outcasts, who no longer believe the skelzi propaganda. The outcats want to topple their oppressors, but are unprepared and unequipped to do so.

While the backdrop is amazing, and full of potential, the adventure begins with a hook as tired as possible: an army of gnolls attacks a caravan, and chases the party into the ruins of Temelpa. If you don't like it, you get three other options, but they aren't much better either (fetch quest, delivery quest, original hook expanded). No matter which one you choose, the gnolls will appear, and surround the city to keep the adventurers within. Needless to say the monsters stay out of the range of missile weapons and spells, and conveniently stay until the DM wants them to stay. Blockade is a cheap and ineffective way to keep the PCs from leaving the area. If the players can kill something you can rest assured they will try to do it. It's an army of gnolls? Don't worry, the players will have a plan, and waste an entire session on executing it. Second, why would an army of gnolls besiege a whole city for 4-6 escapees? Even a magical sandstorm that lasts for days would have had been a better choice, especially if you connect it in some way to the skelzis.

After the hook the module introduces the factions and important NPCs, giving the reader a good overview about what's going on in the city. The events are next, beginning with garbage exhaustion rules and an NPC meant to railroad the PCs if needed, then moving unto the mildly interesting funeral procession, and finally explaining in great length the interaction with the guards and skelzis. Short summary of the latter: no matter what the PCs do or who they are, the rulers are absolute bastards, and will do everything to enslave them, or throw them into the arena, or eat them. These are explained in long paragraphs, without any kind of highlighting or bullet points that would make it easier to scan the text and find at first glance what you are looking for. Among the walls of text there is a detail I found amusing: the Crimson Guards are totally incompetent in handling unusual situations. Meeting people without masks, or getting the wrong answer to a ritual question can lead to confusion and guards running to their superiors for advice.

Those threes and fours are all feeding and
sleeping chambers. So exciting!
Next are the district descriptions, a crucial part of any location-based adventure. Unfortunately they get around half page. No, not per district, all in all. The book presents only the two dungeons, the Crimson Ziggurat and the Ziggurat of the Dead in details, the remaining locations get a few paragraphs of trivia each. As for the ziggurats, they are as bland as their maps. Together they have 26 keyed areas, and more than half of them are generic rooms with nothing interesting going on in them. The rest isn't that exciting either. There are barely any meaningful encounters, and the dungeons lack traps, objects to interact with, puzzles. Even the treasure is abysmal! Almost all the loot is sitting in a single chamber in form of a decanter of endless water, a +1 spear, a scroll of protection from evil, a gem worth 625gp, three items of jewelry worth 115gp, 160gp, and 380gp, 2600gp, 1560sp, and 1080cp. I had to check again if I bought the 5e version by accident... In old-school D&D you get most of your XP for the treasure you retrieve. The module was written for a party of 4-6 level 4-5 adventurers. The swag above is maybe enough for a thief to get from level 4 to 5, and they advance super fast compared to other classes. The magic items are as boring and useless as it can get. In the city of vampire vultures is a +1 spear really the best magic weapon the author could come up with? Also, a rule of thumb: if you want to run a desert adventure, don't hand out a decanter of endless water to the party, otherwise it will turn into a trivial trip.

Beside the above treasure hunters can loot 50-200gp more by following the good old cliché of prying out the gemstone eyes of an idol. There is a 4 in 6 chance for the barbed devil living inside to manifest. I wonder why not 6 in 6. Don't rob the players from their actions having consequences. The idol's description is a short, but good example of my issues with the writing: fillers.

"The idol is similar to those venerated by any of the many gluttony cults: a rotund humanoid with exaggerated mouth and teeth, tiny eyes, shrunken limbs, and a swollen belly. The necklaces and crown adorning it are made from linked fingerbones, teeth, short ribs, and other small bones from humans and halflings. The whole thing is about 4ft tall."

No need to pad the text with generalization about other gluttony cults, because it's irrelevant concerning this statue, and it might not be true. What if a gluttony cult follows a bulimiac god who teaches to visit the vomitorium after every meal so you can keep eating? I'm also surprised when authors use weak words like "thing" casually in a published book. The idol's description can be easily shortened into the following, without losing any flavor:

"The 4ft tall idol depicts a rotund humanoid with exaggerated mouth and teeth, tiny eyes, shrunken limbs, and a swollen belly. Its crown and necklaces are made from linked fingerbones, teeth, short ribs, and other small bones."

Weredactyls? Always two there are; no more, no less.
Probably the result of the D&D5e CR calculations.
The module ends with appendices. Appendix 1 contains random encounter tables. They are just dull lists of monsters and quantity - 8 centipedes, 2 skelzis and 2 weredactyls, 2d4 halflings, and so on. Expanding the entries into a whole sentence would have livened them up and could help a lot in turning Temelpa into a living, breathing environment. 8 centipedes are crawling on the corpse of a halfling outcast who is holding a scroll in his hand. 2 skelzis are trying to capture 2 weredactyls that went feral after being in pterodactyl form for too long. 2d4 halflings are climbing down into the cellar hastily while the shouts of the Crimson Guard echo through the alley. Such details can be inspiring and expand the adventure.

Appendix 2 has the three new monsters entries: Fuulagh the Blood Orchid Savant, skelzi, and weredactyl. All three of them are imaginative creatures with an interesting symbiotic relationship between them. The skeksis... err, I mean skelzis are conquerors from another plane, and were turned vampiric (but nut undead) by the blood orchid. The weredactyls are their stupid servants, who the skelzis have to keep an eye on, for if they spend too much time in pterodactyl form they go feral and have to be retrained from scractch. The latter is a detail I would love to see abused by players, and turned against the skelzis!

The book ends with a legal appendix, and an empty page.

The City That Dripped Blood is not the kickass mix of city and dungeon crawl I expected. While the background and factions have enough detail to work from, the environment is seriously lacking, either because the information is close to zero (districts), or because of the content's weakness (ziggurats). Cutting the filler text, better organization, more interesting dungeon rooms, more exciting loot, and spending the two empty pages on giving the districts some character would turn The City That Dripped Blood from another shovelware adventure into an excellent one. Unfortunately that work is left to the buyer. But hey, at least the cover is nice!

Tl;dr: Beautiful cover, kickass premise, lackluster implementation. You can buy it on the official Frog God Games website.