Wednesday 16 January 2019

[Review] Quack Keep

Villain or victim? You can find out by reading
 the adventure (or this review)!
Let's start the new year with a review I've been sitting on since September! Quack Keep is a system neutral campaign setting with a heavy emphasis on fowl folk. Yes, bird people - ducks, geese, crows, and so on. Yeah, I know, it sounds silly, but so do dragonborn, tortles, gnomes, hit points. Ducks have been part of the hobby since the very first edition of RuneQuest realesed in 1978, which showed a fine example about how to present seemingly comical ideas with a serious face.

Quack Keep was written by RuneQuest and Judges Guild veteran Jennell Jaquays (an expert of both duck-centric adventures and sandbox settings), and Darcy Perry (the excellent sculptor running Star Hat Miniatures). Like The Dragon's Secret re-release, Quack Keep was part of the Dungeons of Doom IV kickstarter campaign. Unlike The Dragon's Secret, this was an entirely new product.

The 54 pages long book's cover is a stunning piece by Jaquays, depicting some of the locals facing the fiersome ducdrackon. I'm not sure if it's the colors, or the stern expressions of the ducks, but the goofy premise doesn't detract from the serious tone and tenseness of the scene. It's a damn fine cover, one I would gladly put on my wall. The interior feels like a black & white book that got colored later: the text is black & white except for the red titles, the header and some pictures are greyscale, while others are full color. While this dissonance irks me a bite, the top notch quality of the artwork more than compensates for it. The character illustrations done by Darcy Perry are particularly praiseworthy, they are both beautiful and full of personality.

Quack Keep begins with an introduction and a guide about how to use the book. The setting uses the Story Scale System, which is a universal system to describe the stats of anything - characters, magic items, you name it. The scale uses both numbers and descriptors. It goes from 0 (Calamitous) to 100 (Mythical), with a value of 2 being average, 5 superior, 40 legendary. I had a hard time wrapping my head around it and gave up on using it for conversion. Going with either an exact numerical system (preferably one close to D&D, which most buyers use anyway), or a purely descriptive scale with fewer tiers would have had been a better choice. If there are plans to use the SSS for future products, I recommend creating a conversion guide at least, for at the moment preparing to run the module in any system needs a tremendous effort from the GM.

The book introduces the setting's backstory in a single page. Reedy Bend is an unremarkable section of the river Cygnus, which happens to be a Nexus Point - a place where planes intersect. The region was settled by ducks after the god Oduck's ship, Squidquacknir crashlanded here. They built a prosperous civilization, that had to be rebuilt after the ducdrackon Daffyd Platypyros wrought havoc upon the area. Nowadays the ducks thrive again, despite the gargantuan monster's presence. The summary is great for several reasons: it's short, it puts the reader in picture about the region, and it leaves several questions unanswered. Anticipation to find out more is a good way to keep the reader motivated in getting involved with the setting.

You can find creepy stalkers, pet rocks, and good mead in Banquak Pond.
Reedy Bend is divided into twelve locations, which include settlements, wildernesses, and dungeons - the three cornerstones of a balanced campaign. Each has its own features, which can be a monster's lair as well as an eccentric shop, or just a historical site. Some of these might seem boring, but they are still useful in rounding out the locale's character. The towns and the Night Market have "Ten Things One Can Acquire" lists, which sum up in (surprise!) ten points what you can run into while hanging out there. As an example, in New Marshton Pond you can get into the best bar brawls, while in the Night Market you can buy stolen body parts. It's a short, fun, and effective way of setting the tone. I hoped to see more of these, but the only other list we get is the Random Encounter table for the Sunken Caverns, which is also delivered in a terse and entertaining way.

Unusually among sandboxes, Reedy Bend isn't overwhelmed by wilderness. Settlements cover a large section of the map, and even the depths of the marshes hold a hint of civilization, like a ferry ran by bandits, the above mentioned Night Market where people meet to arrange their shady dealings, and the camp of hillbilly swamp dwarves who hunt ducks (yes, the fowl folk ducks). It doesn't mean these areas are friendly of course. Reedy Bend is still full of places to explore and mysteries to solve! Where did the Squidquacknir crashland and what happened to it? What's up with the legendary ducdrackon that devastated civilization a century ago? What lies beneath the crypts of Bluebill temple?

My absolute favorite enigmas are the Marsh Lords. These stone idols fell out when the Squidquacknir crashlanded. Their upper parts are ducks, their lower parts are unknown, they are all over the region, they all look towards the same point, and some people claim they communicate with each other. The truth about them is utterly horrifying lovecraftian revelation. Brilliant. Speaking of exploration and mysteries, I must mention the Sunken Caverns, the defining dungeon of the region. It only has sixteen rooms, but it's delightfully non-linear, barely has any straight lines, and is connected to several other locations. Within the adventurers can find ancient crypts, living rocks banished by the first ducks, a fowlbear lair, an evil demon, the bottom of a Marsh Lord, and the ducdrackon's hideout.

The amount of detail each place gets is a erratic: some are lavishly detailed, while others only get a few paragraphs. Some sections even have "BYO Maps" (Bring Your Own Maps) notes, which means all the GM gets are a handful of ideas about what to put there, but everything else is up to him. I wouldn't have any issues with this, if the most intriguing adventure site didn't get this treatment: the Whispering Tower. It is basically Moorcock's Vanishing Tower - an everchenging, plane shifting dungeon. A missed opportunity, although it's understandable, since such a concept deserves an entire module of its own. Fingers crossed that's what Jennell is working on! Another disappointment is the titular Quack Keep. The ancient castle ruins are truly all that they seems to be. There are two entrances for BYO dungeons, but other than that the location feels more of a tourist attraction than an adventure site.

So far what we have is pretty solid overall. A bit uneven, but good. But good is the minimum one should expect from a module,  and if you buy something with Jennell's name on it, you are probably looking for more. Well, fasten your seatbelts, because we reached the part where Jaquays really shines this time: the denizes.

The fate of the dol-men is one of the darkest secrets
of fowl folk history.
Fifteen pages are devoted to the various inhabitants of Reed Bend Marshes. Heroes, scoundrels, shopkeepers, monsters, they are all here. Yes, even the monsters. If you hate puns and pop culture references, this is the where you will put the book down, because the authors now turn it up to eleven. You will meet people like Quackie Chan, Ducktor Whio, Biggus Duckus, Thulsa Duck, Ducky Perry, and so on. Howard the Human doesn't seem that outrageous until you realize he is both H. P. Lovecraft, and a Howard the Duck reference at once. The fowl gimmick becomes tiresome after a while, but if you endure and manage to dig deeper you will find pure gold. Behind the silly surface lie complex and well written characters. Their whimsical nature is balanced by layers of darkness that hide under the comical mascara. They have problems, tragedies, traumas, secrets, and complicated relationships with each others.

For many sandboxes the environment is the most defining feature. Quack Keep is all about its inhabitants. They feel like real people, and as you learn more and more about them you realize that why Reedy Bend is different from your average D&D setting: violence doesn't feel right. It doesn't solve most problems the people have here, and murder would just take away from the colorfulness of this unremarkable river section. Okay, the trolls and swamp dwarves are total bastards, they are the exception... But even the supposed main villain, the ducdrackon Daffyd Platypus is sympathetic in some. She was a human assassion, who took the wrong job, made a bad decision, and paid the ultimate price. Now all she wants is returning to her normal life with her girlfriend, but alas she can only become human during full moons, when she visits the Night Market to socialize a bit before turning back into the hideous monster on the cover. Transformation, and how it can change someone is a returning topic by the way.

Remember the Whispering Tower? If you read Moorcock you probably expect an Eternal Champion to turn up. Well  there are three of them in Reedy Bend, and the are other epic scale figures in the neighbourhood, like the Ducktor with his time traveling inn, the feebleminded Oduck who lost his memories with his ravens, the 16 feet tall otherworldy arch fey owl Lunos, and some more. The region has creatures and NPCs for every level, from wimps to godly entities.

Besides being fun the NPCs are also well written. There is enough information to work from in their descriptions, and to make the GM's life easier, their frequent places and related NPCs are included in tags. It could have been even better is if they were linked in the pdf, and the page numbers were included. It boggles my mind why such tags weren't included for the locations about the NPCs frequenting them. Some more help would be welcome, because the information is sometimes all over the place, the story of the ducrackon being one of the best examples.

Following the denizens are the Reedy Bend Tales, a collection of adventure ideas. There are more than seventy seeds here of various quality and magnitude: they range from simple fetch quests to world shaking events, and are usually one or two paragraphs long. There are plenty of pop culture references again, including Batman, John Wick, Big Trouble in Little China. Like the NPCs, these entries have helpful tags too.

There are two pages for encounters and curios (they are back from The Dragon's Secret), though a half page is eaten up by an image of trolls. I have no clue what they are doing, but they look damn fine. The tables are just as good. Here are a few examples:

If Coduck runs from it, you too should be concerned.
Coduck appears, waddling at full speed. He charges through the party ranks shouting “Crom!” A thunderous roar splits the air and the earth shakes. He is being chased by a hungry web-footed carnosaurus!

An odd wheeled boat-like craft has been found half-sub-merged in the marsh, it’s an amphibious combat vehicle from another realm called a “duck.”

A Marsh Lord, still damp and newly risen from the marsh. It resembles a member of the party.

A colorfully painted door and frame… but no wall.

Again, expanding them is up to the GM, but that shouldn't be a problem considering how evocative some of them are.

Two pages are devoted to the appendices. They introduce the various kinds of fowl folk living in the marsh (which is basically the same list as the one in The Dragon's Secret), and tell a bit more about quack magic, standing stones, before ending with a random chart of Artifacts from Squidquacknir. Would you like some sci-fi in your fantasy? Well of course! Three spoonful. Heck, make it four... The list has such mouth-watering objects as chainsaws, jet packs, electric tooth brushes, and some weirder stuff, eg.:

Jamie’s Magic Torch - This device is a blue cylindrical object with yellow ends and the name “Jamie” etched into it’s base. Activate the switch and a light shines forth. When shone at a flat surface, a portal appears; a hole with a helter skelta slide that takes the rider to Cuckoo Land.

Good stuff, again.

The book ends with gorgeous full color maps of Reedy Bend that cover pretty much everything. I have no idea how, but there are two maps for the Sunken Caverns in my pdf, but the section doesn't seem to be missing anything. Kudos to Jennell for including both metric and imperial units on the map! It takes such a minimal effort to do it, yet barely anyone bothers with it.

The layout is solid, editing in is much better than in The Dragon's Secret, and it is an entertaining read. I have a hunch though that most folk won't run it ever, because it needs some serious effort from the GM. There are places to be finished, stat blocks to be designed from scratch, duck minis to be painted (optinally, of course), and people to be convinced to play in a World of Fowlcraft.

Is it a must have product? No, but you should buy it. Not only to prove me wrong by running it (for example with Ryuutama - seriously, it's a match made in heaven), but also because it's a beautiful product, full of heart. It's the Alfred J. Kwak of OSR products: on the surface it's a fun tale with about ducks, but if you pull the curtain back you will see unexpected maturity and seriousness.

Tl;dr: An unusual sandbox where the fowl puns and silly quackracter ideas hide deep and engaging personalities.

Where to find it: You can find it in print in the Star Hat Miniatures webshop along with a bunch of amazing miniatures, and you can buy it on DriveThruRPG  in both pdf and print on demand format.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.


  1. Huh, it actually does sound interesting! Thanks for the review.

    1. In Jaquays we trust! I was a bit worried about the ducks. While I tolerate them, I had a feeling a whole setting devoted to them would be too much. Surprisingly, I was wrong. The puns on the other hand...

  2. Starting point: Quack Keep began as a collaboration idea for a kickstarter with Darcy Perry of Star Hat Miniatures in New Zealand. His most recent kickstarter had featured several duck character, including one, Jenn Jaquack, that was a tribute to me. We talked about me creating an old school feeling adventure featuring his duck characters. This was in the summer of 2017. We shot for a Kickstarter that would launch in November and finish before Christmas. I pitched Darcy a number of ideas for more duck characters and some of those made it into the every-growing list of characters that he sculpted (The Grey Moulter, Mr. Froduck (an illustration that I did in the early 80s, I think), Goodie Green and her husband Dabbler, Mother Henna, and Whimsica de Loon). Not sure what happened to my Fafhrd pastiche character.

    I came up the idea for the title, the logo art, the cover, and the big monster on it. It’s a tribute piece to both the title of Andre Norton’s novel Quag Keep, the first D&D novel ever published and the cover of the book by American science fiction artist and author Jack Gaughan. This was not the first time that I used Gaughan’s styling for my art. My first professional art credits in a table top game were for Chitin I: The Harvest Wars from Metagaming Concepts. The game was loosely based on Jack Vance’s novella, The Dragon Masters. The “dragons” in that book were what I call “insecta-reptilloid” creatures, not really dragons. Jack Gaughan was the artist for the original printing of the story… in one of the SF magazines of its time, I think. Metagaming wanted me to base my art on Gaughan’s.

    Back to Quack Keep.

    Darcy got busy sculpting, and I went offline (at least from being able to work) for over two months due to major surgery and recovery where I couldn’t set a computer for any length of time followed by losing nearly another three months due to packing for and un packing from an interstate move of our household.

    In the process, the kickstarter ran, did quite well, and finished. Darcy kept sculpting all the while and I finally was able to get down to the process of designing, writing, doing art, maps, and production.

    The book was always intended to be a black and white booklet with a tri fold GM screen. The cover art was created and formatted to originally fit that trifold. All the color maps and keys from the book were on the inside of that. In the end, that is what we delivered to our kickstarter backers. If you buy the book from Star Hat’s inventory, you will get this original version.

  3. Art and Production

    The book available on Drivethru is essentially, the second edition. The Kickstarter version was formatted to fit the print standards of the printer we used in New Zealand. Content would be entirely black and white, and the book would be saddle-stitched (stapled along the spine). For Drivethru, the book would be perfect bound, meaning completely different print proportions and to include the maps, would be printed in color. Since we were committing to color for this version, that meant we could do everything in color.

    I started with a parchment background (same as on the maps) and began digitally coloring Darcy’s pencil drawings, my illustrations, and some of the clip art. Some came out better than others. Sadly, the vignette style art didn’t mesh perfectly with the color backgrounds and there were noticeable flaws. So… after finishing a completely color version of the interior, I backtracked to white paper with some color vignette illustrations.

    The Storyscale system is loosely based on a combination of my original Central Casting system and the Agile system used in software development to estimate the complexity/difficulty of tasks during development. One of the few things I took away (professionally) from my time at CCP. The numbers represent approximations, estimates and the scale is intended to be based more on a hyperbolic curve than a straight line. The difference between the abilities of someone who is average (2) and someone who is mythical (100) are intended to be that extreme. The idea is that these are all relative to the abilities of the player characters in the story, where they are assumed to be Exceptional (5) as a starting point. My hope is that the GM could scale how they assigned stat values to the NPCs and maybe monsters so their challenge levels would work regardless of the level of the player characters involved. Sounds like that needs more development and explanation.
    Why not set it up for 5th Edition? Because. Because not everyone plays 5th edition. Because we didn’t want this to be a d20 system only. Because people play Runequest, older versions and retro clones, of D&D, Pathfinder, Dragon Age, Fantasy Age, and more. Because in 5 or 10 years, people may not be playing any of these systems and be playing something else.

  4. General content

    As I got into writing the book, I realized it was going to be mostly about the characters we were creating. They would occupy most of the book. The setting would be their home. If possible, it would make sense why they were all there in the same place. And even though many of them were homages to popular culture, classic fantasy heroes, and even to friends and ourselves, I did my best to make them be engaging and interesting as characters. Even the villains would have some sense of relatable “humanity” often rooted in tragedy or unintended consequences.

    The setting is a blend of ideas from Darcy and me, developed into a timeline and a reason for being. Story bits are often told in association with the characters they affect, rather than continuous narratives.

    As you noted, it’s a “Sandbox.” But then, that’s been the case with a lot of my best pieces, like Griffin Mountain, the Enchanted Wood, and even Duck Tower. I realized that making this into a single adventure defeated the purpose of the character richness. It needed to be a setting, not a single adventure. That meant not everything got equal treatment. And there wouldn’t be space to include dungeon treatments for everything, like Quack Keep or the Whispering Tower (Which was included because of the Eldritch Swansong … with other characters stepping into fill eternal champion roles). By leaving holes in the setting like that, GM’s could fill them with material from other sources… and Reedy Bend would be flexible enough for them to fit right in.

    The descriptions of the Fowl Folk first appeared in Quack Keep. I copied, pasted and rewrote them into The Dragon’s Secret along with their S&W stats as an afterthought (when I reformatted that book to fit into Drivethru).

    I won’t promise that I’ll go back through the PDF version of Quack Keep and put in all manner of links anytime soon, but I suspect that I’m going to need to figure that out for Central Casting, and if I do, I may go back into Quack Keep for an update.

    Going forward, I’ve been working on several other projects for table top gaming, none having anything to do with Quack Keep right now.


    1. Thank you for the reply! It was both an interesting look behind the curtain, and also enlightening.

      Now that you mention Agile the SSS makes more sense. Still, a downloadable conversion guide would be very handy, most of us still play games related to D&D or Chaosium d100 (which will still be relevant in 10 years in some form), and grasps six-seven stats on a scale of 3-18 easier. I have to admit, I'm unfamiliar with the Central Casting books. Maybe it's time I did something against this issue.

      I'm glad you made Quack Keep a sandbox, and not only because it's my favorite way of running campaigns. DriveThruRPG is full of dungeons, but sandboxes are few and far between compared to them. Quack Keep wasn't just a pleasant surprise, but also a breath of fresh air between reading two more dungeon modules.

      You mention that none of your current projects have anything to do with Quack Keep now. Does this mean the multiverse of The Dragon's Secret and Quack Keep is also on hold for now?

  5. I'm juggling between the world I described in The Dragons' Secret (I have three adventure projects developing in that right now), and my rewrite of Central Casting, and doing design for 3D printing with a thought towards marketing my designs.

    1. Glad to hear you didn't drop the setting! I think I won't rush to buy Central Casting then, I will wait for your rewrite.