I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Blade Itself, volume one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. This was my first exposure to his work. The associations I had picked up over the years was dark and gritty, so I was expecting something like Hobbesian low fantasy (Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle is @LordGrimdark, after all). It took me some time to warm up to the story. In fact, a few hours in I was on the verge of cutting my losses and moving on. It struck me as something like a fantasy version of The Sopranos, at least in style, Logen Ninefingers some discount bin Conan, Inquisitor Glokta a caricature of petty tyranny. Why should I care about these characters, this relatively generic fantasy world with its savage northmen and bestial humanoids? About 25% in, however, my reaction had shifted diametrically.
It helped that the performance (narrated by Steven Pacey) was excellent, but in any case I am glad I persisted.
In some ways, The First Law seems something like what A Song of Ice and Fire could have been had it reached its potential, in the rough subgenre of low fantasy that assumes the worst about human nature. This is probably an unfair comparison, because I did enjoy the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire, before I lost patience with the pace of releases, and I have yet to see how The First Law concludes. But I think Abercrombie has a reputation for satisfying endings (and it is already done). We will see.
Most important was the handling of the characters, both how Abercrombie gradually brings them together in the narrative, and how they begin to rise above their initial caricatures. Abercrombie seems like he actually cares about his main characters, even those that are unpleasant, and is disappointed and sympathetic (if not surprised) when they stumble and suffer, though he does have a tendency to revel ghoulishly in their flaws from time to time. I also found the story funny. One example of many: the chapter where Glokta first meets Logen and the wizard Bayaz—the juxtaposition between the seemingly basic honesty of everything Bayaz and company say with the totally reasonable but wrong distrust of the obviously intelligent, but rather repulsive, Glokta—is some solid writing. Pleasantly anticipating volume two.
Over the past few years, I have been catching up with a few of the popular genre fantasy authors that I had, for whatever reason, not gotten around to reading. Among that crew is also Brandon Sanderson, of whose work I’ve now heard the first three volumes of The Stormlight Archive and the first Mistborn book. More on that at some point in the future.
frus·trat·ed fan·ta·sy nov·el·ist, n. A caricature of a tabletop roleplaying referee who has developed a complex imaginary world, or particular plot, and would really much rather show players around or tell a predetermined story than play a game.
The frustrated fantasy novelist approach has rarely, if ever, tempted me. Perhaps, though, there is another loosely related set of motivations that might apply to some degree: frustrated fantasy architect. By architect, I mean specifically a planner of built spaces. I find few things as compelling as exploring, or watching players explore, the remains of a vast buried city, or derelict spacecraft, or lightless underworld. This thought occurred to me many times as I was listening to Susanna Clarke’s 2020 novel Piranesi. Though the setting for the novel is primarily a stage upon which to present the protagonist’s experience rather than an unknown expanse to explore in a cartographic sense, the end result brings to mind the mysterious otherness of the best tabletop roleplaying game dungeons.
I will avoid talking much about the plot, both because part of the pleasure in the story is gradually realizing the nature of the situation along with the protagonist and because I want to focus more on the evocation of imagined space. What drew me in was the limited viewpoint that grows to slowly encompass greater realization, and the sense of destabilization and shifting beliefs that accompany the expansion of knowledge. The story begins in a labyrinth, which is also the world; it is a tangle of architecture, tides, and uncountable statues; an endless expanse of halls. If you have seen etchings by the historical Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Venetian artist, you probably already have some approximate image of this space in your mind. The Piranesi of Clarke’s story knows of 15 people, and for Piranesi the labyrinth is the whole of existence.
In a roleplaying game, satisfying architectural exploration for me requires some degree of concreteness and detail, akin to procession through a region in Dark Souls or a creatively designed stage for a first person shooter. Different areas must relate with a strict spatial logic. Though this logic need not by conventional or Cartesian, it must involve more structure than a narrative sequence. As a tangential point, practical architecture that is suitable for use in the prosaic world is too repetitious, predictable, and symmetrical to be ideal for exploring as a dungeon. The most effective and interesting dungeon spaces are like expressionistic recasting of identifiable architectures. The labyrinth in this story is too abstractly depicted to be a good example of a roleplaying game dungeon, being loosely sketched to evoke the feeling tone of the story protagonist. Though Piranesi often mentions specific halls by name, and describes distinctive features in detail, the spaces are floating vignettes that emerge and fade away to support scenes rather than spaces of complex relation. I intend this not as negative judgment, since the depiction works well in the context of the story, but instead to make it clear how the story communicates the feel of a dungeon-like space without taking the audience through a process of exploration.
The story was not what I was expecting, though afterwards I can see similarities to Clarke’s other work. Though much shorter than her more well-known novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Piranesi still reaches a length that I think most people would say “counts as a novel” (a web search tells me 272 pages). Despite this, it feels like a short story, and I mean this in the best possible way; the story is tightly crafted, with few extraneous events or digressions when seen as a whole, and though the pacing is languid on the surface, I found the story to be enthralling, even riveting. It is without question one of my favorite novels published somewhat recently (recently in the historical sense; say, after the year 2000). Despite that acclamation, Piranesi is a concept album of a book, and while Clarke avoids ostentatious experimental literary technique, the approach is still something other than conventional third person realism. I could see how this might lead some people to come away feeling like the book is somewhat contrived or affected, but the approach landed for me.
The version to which I listened, from Audible, was read by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It may be the best audiobook performance I have come across, and I have listened to quite a few audiobooks since covid began. (Also, one of my parents worked in audiobook publishing for a stretch, so I heard many when I was younger. Even considering all of those, and with the caveat that it has been a while, this may still be the best reading I have heard.) The publisher has made available an excerpt you can listen to on YouTube. Chiwetel reads slowly, very clearly, in a way that perfectly captures Piranesi’s curious demeanor but also his fundamentally strange and alien beliefs about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, I see only a few other audiobook performances by him, but at least one of them is an audio dramatization of Othello (along with several other performers), which I am now anticipating.
I conclude with a brief nested quotation. What follows is Thomas De Quincey quoting a section from book two of Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. Before this quoted section, De Quincey described (with considerable creative license) Coleridge recalling a plate from Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione.
With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds. From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:
The Appearance, instantaneously disclosed, Was of a mighty City—boldly say A wilderness of building, sinking far And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth, Far sinking into splendor—without end! Fabric it seemed of diamond and of gold, With alabaster domes, and silver spires; And blazing terrace upon terrace high Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright, In avenues disposed; there, towers begirt With battlements that on their restless fronts Bore stars—illumination of all gems! By earthly nature had the effect been wrought Upon the dark materials of the storm Now pacified; on them, and on the coves And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto The vapours had receded, taking there Their station under a cerulean sky., &c. &c.
De Quincey (1986). Confessions of an English opium eater. Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1822)
Piranesi (1761). Carceri d’invenzione. Rome.
Wordsworth (1814). The Excursion. Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.
You Died is a book about Dark Souls, written by a pair of game journalists. It was first published as a simple paperback and then reimagined as a deluxe hardcover funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The book is printed offset in Italy on 140gsm Magno Natural uncoated paper and plentifully illustrated. In keeping with the profession of the authors, many of the chapters have a journalistic flavor, describing the origin of Dark Souls and vignettes about its reception, often via experiences reporting about the game. However, the book also includes thoughtful chapters on game design, player motivation, and creative influences. The chapters alternate through essays, brief discussions of locations within the game, and there is a brief appendix discussing the setting and important characters. This book was clearly a labor of love, attested by the attention paid to sturdy construction, the careful design, and the reverential art direction. I think it should be obvious that the text itself will contain many spoilers, but I think I have kept this post free of spoilers.
Let’s get the discussion of weaknesses out of the way. While the binding and cover are excellent, the black inks could have greater depth, and this is especially noticeable on the pages with white text on black background. In keeping with the celebratory aspect of the work, occasionally the prose shifts into a sentimental register noticeable even to me as a fan of the game. Jason also has a penchant for punchy wordplay, which I suspect works slightly better in short form web writing compared to a longer text (sample chapter titles: You’ve Got Chainmail, Knight & Subscribe). Along similar lines, while the layout is excellent in general, there are a few flourishes that would be more at home in a magazine or web site, such as the occasional pull quote. Honestly though, taken in perspective, these are all minor issues. The book as a whole is an impressive accomplishment; as a physical artifact, as a thoughtful discussion of game design, and as a consideration of the play culture around Dark Souls.
I enjoyed all the chapters, even the human interest features which tell stories about the importance of Dark Souls to various individuals, but my favorite parts were the interviews with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the game’s director, whose words are rubricated within the text. Just about everything Miyazaki says is revealing or insightful in some way, but I will highlight two quotes as examples. The first is about respecting the accomplishments of players, even those that might be considered exploits:
During lunch with Hidetaka Miyazaki in London in April 2012, I asked him if his team had designed that … spot especially for grinding. He assured me they hadn’t, but since players had discovered on their own how to manipulate it for their gain, he didn’t want to patch the AI behaviour and steal away something that now belonged to the community.
You Died, p. 60
The second is about the interplay between exploration and ambiguity in design:
This philosophy of ambiguity derives from Miyazaki’s teen years reading fantasy novels in English. He had a particular fondness for the Fighting Fantasy series, written by UK game-industry pioneers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Because of the language barrier, much of these stories remained mysterious to him: he was left to fill in the blanks with his own imagination.
You Died, p. 311
Considering 1974 D&D, there is a case to be made that slightly incomplete rules prompt (or demand) some degree of customization or finishing on the part of the referee. While this might be a flaw for some purposes, it also creates a degree of investment and uniqueness in the realized game. There is also the more general idea that a void can be fruitful. The ambiguity and obscurity of what is ultimately going on in Dark Souls works similarly, creating both curiosity about the details scattered throughout the game (encouraging exploration) while also creating a space for the player’s own idiosyncratic interpretation, given weight and shape by extensive mythological symbolism.
The illustrations are a mix of digital pieces, which I think might be processed photos of actual gameplay, small sketches placed at chapter headings, and whimsical line drawings skillfully caricaturing various experiences of gameplay that will immediately be recognizable to longtime players. These small line drawings especially work to soften the seriousness of the text both in terms of the bleak themes running through Dark Souls the game and the risk of pomposity inherent in giving a book of game journalism such fancy clothes. This is in keeping with the tone of Dark Souls itself, which breaks the somberness with occasional levity. The book is adorned with religious imagery, such as the blind stamped cathedral window cover motif and the title lettering in the form of a cross, not to mention the aforementioned rubrication. The book looks and feels like a psalter from the outside given the cover design, ribbon marker, and gilt page edges. It is no exaggeration to say that obsession runs through the project and text. I know, because I recognize aspects of my own interest reflected back to me. But, like the caricatures throughout, the text is self-aware, and pays respect to the game without taking itself too seriously, most of the time.
As noted above, the book does contain some spoilers, including a few details I have missed in my own playing so far, and some of these made me curious about the online play component, which I have so far totally avoided, being primarily interested in exploring the worlds of Dark Souls on my own terms and through the interfaces the game provides. In a similar vein, apart from occasionally browsing Fashion Souls, and reading a handful of guides about what stats to level or how weapon upgrades work, my primary social engagement about Dark Souls has been limited to discussions with a small coven of Google Plus exiles that I met playing old school D&D and related hacks. Now I am more curious about some of the other culture and cottage industry that has accreted around the game, such as VaatiVidya’s YouTube videos interpreting the morsels of setting detail or the “Kay Plays” of Dark Souls, which chronicles the journey of a novice through the game.
Though I suspect the writing would be engaging for someone who is interested in video games or game design more generally but has minimal experience with Dark Souls, some of the references are obscure and others might seem trivial without the echoes of personal game experiences. You Died is first and foremost a scripture for those initiated in the tribe. Praise the sun! Or the dark, as per appropriate allegiances.
I will close with some additional details for fellow book nerds. When I emailed Jason to ask a few questions about the book’s construction (yes, the binding is stitched), along with answering my questions he sent back links to several videos of the production process:
I follow a few ongoing manga series on Comixology—Delicious in Dungeon, Made in Abyss, Goblin Slayer. Ubel Blatt, though that is finished and I am way behind. Berserk, though that comes out so infrequently it is hard to think about as following. As you can probably see, I have a type: occidentalist fantasy, often influenced (perhaps self-consciously) by tabletop roleplaying tropes. Last time I signed in, I noticed this new series in my recommendations—The Undead Unwanted Adventurer—and it seemed to hit a number of those notes so I decided to give it a try. As it turns out, it is something like lighthearted Dark Souls pseudo fan fic, which has the potential to be, ahem, exactly my sort of thing. In terms of common manga genres: shounen isekai, leaning seinen, with a bit of harem going on, though though the isekai aspect is a rebirth rather than a transportation. (This post mostly avoids plot spoilers, apart from the initial event alluded to in the manga title, but it does contain some minor setting spoilers. Also, for the panel excerpts, keep in mind you should read from right to left.)
First, let’s get the judgments out of the way. This is a smaller-scale, more niche offering than some of the other series listed above. Nakasone’s art is pleasant enough, but lacks the precision and emotion of Miura’s work on Berserk, the richness and complexity of Nihei’s work on Blame!, or the saturated lightness of Tsukushi’s work on Made in Abyss. Comparisons with such accomplished artists may be unfair, but I want to set expectations. Further, the best art in The Undead Unwanted Adventurer is probably in the fan service panels—more on that below. The writing, as well, is good enough to get the story across, but otherwise unremarkable. The story began as a light novel in Japan, before spawning a manga manifestation, and the light novel medium is comparable in some ways with “young adult” fiction in the Western market. So, what we are left with is a story that will rise and fall based on the world building and manipulation of genre touchstones, and how it rewards or surprises reader expectations. Overall, the series kept me curious and entertained enough to plow through the three available volumes in a matter of days.
A common aspect of this subgenre is in-world justification or representation of RPG game elements. This can be crude—such as the magical HUD that characters consult in Rise of the Shield Hero—or clever—such as the “adventure sheet” adventurer guild registration form in Goblin Slayer. When done well, such aspects can suggest ways to connect game elements to setting elements. There is a kind of appreciation seeing in-setting explanations for something like a the Monster Manual hierarchy of undead, or similar game artifacts. Undead Adventurer has a lot of this, including different kinds of “mana” (roughly corresponding to character classes), adventurer guild ranking with exams, mega-dungeon exploration serving almost as borderlands industry, and so forth.
About the harem thing. Our protagonist is a largely misunderstood and unappreciated loner who, throughout the course of adventures, accumulates a number of mostly female sidekicks. Our hero has the opportunity to save or otherwise assist these supporting characters, who come to appreciate his quirks and become fiercely loyal. Sound familiar? (I am somewhat surprised that I was unable to find an overly specific subgenre term for this dynamic given how common it is, but here we are.) This sort of escapism can range from playful wish-fulfillment to bitter resentment, and Unwanted Undead Adventurer lands firmly in the range of playful for me, though it occasionally deserves some eye-roll.
One of the most enjoyable qualities of occidentalist manga in this vein, for me at least, is seeing the common tropes generally taken seriously rather than constantly subverted, but also filtered through the lens of another culture, or idiosyncrasies of a particular creator, which lends novelty and the occasional (but regular) instance of surprising, substantial deviations from common expectations. For example, orcs in the world of the Undead Adventurer are brutish, pig-faced humanoids—that all seem to be terrifying giants, hunted because the flesh of orcs is particularly savory. Recognizable, but warped, and somewhat ghoulish. Perhaps this is a way to approximate the New Sincerity turn, but in genre fantasy, for those of us that grow bored of constant genre irony and deconstruction?
(Panels excerpted here are an assortment from volumes 1 through 3.)
I last played Final Fantasy VII when it came out originally. I liked the original, and probably count as a fan of the franchise generally, though my favorite iteration remains Final Fantasy VI, and I have slightly less experience with the modern action-leaning incarnations (X, XII, XIII, XV, and various spin-offs). Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake was probably the most sustained attention I have directed toward a video game in the past 10 years, taking about 40 hours total. While this may partly be due to the current shelter-in-place pseudo-quarantine context, it nonetheless speaks to the engaging spectacle and beauty of the reimagined Midgar. So keep that in mind as you read on. There may be spoilers throughout regarding the original FF VII storyline, as well as some spoilers near the end about the way the remake approached the material.
The original game was linear—almost all FF games are linear to some degree—and especially so during the initial Midgar sequence, which is the only material the remake covers, ending as Avalanche leaves the city. Since I started writing this review, I also played through the Midgar sequence of the original on Nintendo Switch, which took me about six hours, meaning the expansion/inflation is about sevenfold. Though lengthy for a prologue or tutorial section, the Midgar sequence works well in the original partly because the railroad feels subjectively like it opens up once the player finally reaches the overworld map and can begin to explore the mysteries of the Ancients and Sephiroth in a more self-directed manner (though this is somewhat illusory, as there are often a limited number of choices and a clear next step). In contrast, the Remake is one scene—quite literally—after another, leavened somewhat by numerous side quests (though many of the side quests are thematically weak “find lost cats” style collect tasks). The side quests seem inconsequential most of the time, and are limited to particular chapters. The strongest aspect of Remake is the visual care with which it was clearly constructed. In comparison to the original, the way the developers maintain and add detail to the original designs is impressive. Even putting aside the new plot elements—which I will discuss more near the end—the game aspect of Remake also has some shortcomings.
These gameplay shortcomings include some strange difficulty/balance issues, intrusive minigames, and confusingly modeful play. As a brief aside, Remake offers three difficulty modes: classic, easy, and normal. Hard mode becomes available after you beat the game. “Classic” is a nod to players desiring something closer to the original combat system. This is realized by replacing player controls with AI for basic attacks, dodging, and blocking, leaving the player to only select special moves and spells when the stamina bar (or whatever it is called) fills. Hard (which I have yet to try) only becomes available after beating the game; hard mode prevents the player from using items and makes rest areas only restore HP (no MP replenishment). Classic mode makes the combat much easier, rather than just changing the style, to the degree that it almost feels like cheating. I would say that the combat difficulty is moderate near the beginning of the game (probably easy for anyone even slightly better than me at action RPGs) and gets steadily easier. I defeated every boss on the first try except the Airbuster robot and the motorcycle sequence monster truck thing (which uses a different combat mode). So, the game has to be pretty easy, even on the highest difficulty mode available initially. I deferred to Classic mode twice early on, once with the rabid dog quest and once with the first Reno encounter (because he is twitchy AF). This is a long way around to say that the goal of FF7 Remake seems to be more sumptuous visual novel than gaming experience.
The minigames are either forgettable or mildly frustrating. Further, they tend to be separate from other gameplay skills and unique to the particular minigame, rather than building on previously developed skills. In the Remake’s defense, the minigames in the original are just as distracting (and far more prevalent than I remembered, even just limited to the small portion I replayed). However, the original generally has clearer breaks between game modes, allowing the player to easily predict how the game will behave, whereas in the remake gameplay, cut scene, minigame, and in-between modes blend together and functionality sometimes disappears or shifts confusingly. The Remake also has issues with communicating contingency to the player, by which I mean connection between what the player does and what happens in the game world. Sometimes it is unclear whether you are just pressing a button to advance or performing some skilled action. For example, I still have no idea whether Tifa’s progress in jumping chandeliers in the Shinra building had any connection to what I did with the controller, but I ended up with a keycard in the end so whatever. I suspect the Remake would be improved without most of the minigames. (It seems like the developers recognize this at some level, because one of the perks unlocked by beating the game is the ability to skip the motorcycle sequences when replaying chapters.)
The combat is satisfying, and fits the FF VII style, especially once you get the hang of some basic tactics. There is a slow motion, bullet time effect that occurs when you pause the action to issue commands, which is realized beautifully. Most of the strategic decisions involve distributing materia—the items that enable casting spells or using other abilities such as summoning—between characters. There is a subsystem with a separate experience point economy for upgrading weapons, but the choices seem hard to get wrong so the whole subsystem could probably have been automated and hidden from the player without loss.
Now I am going to discuss the Remake-specific aspects of the story. The game has a lot of potentially meta content, as in communication from developer to player directly rather than through storytelling, so much that it has to be intentional. Throughout the Remake, mysterious ghost things (“whispers”) intercede to shape the narrative, and while a final interpretation will need to wait on the next installment, it seems like the whispers will be an excuse to write a new plot going forward, especially given the final premature encounter with Sephiroth which, no matter the direction future games take, short-circuits some of the slow burn of discovering the nature and power of Sephiroth in the original game. The strange title and marketing also makes more sense in the context of future divergence; it is not Remake part 1 because part 2 will be a different story. I suspect the subtitles of future games will make this clear; perhaps the next installment will be called something like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. The closest analogue to what I think the developers intend is the rebuild of Evangelion, the first installment of which roughly kept to the original anime. However, the second and third Evangelion Rebuild movies became steadily more baroque additions with new plots and characters.
The neo VII project more broadly—perhaps a series, perhaps a nascent “cinematic universe”—is ambitious and as yet unclear, though it seems from the signs in Remake that the creators are comfortable taking a demolitions approach to nostalgic fandom. While I have no trouble maintaining distance between the new and the old—after all, the previous game remains unchanged and cheaply available on many platforms—I suspect that many other fans feel differently, so this seems like a strange stance to take on the part of the developers. In total, the game was enjoyable and visually striking enough that I can see myself playing it again at some point, but as such a small portion of the original plot and with cumbersome retcon groundwork, Remake also feels like a opportunity missed.
(All images are screenshots I took during my play-through.)
The Spire of Quetzel is a collection of four adventure sites: The Spire of Quetzel (by Patrick Stuart), The Bright Vault (by Chris McDowall), The Hexenwald (by Ben Milton), and Graveyard of Thunder (by Karl Stjernberg) written for the game Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy. I take this to mean something similar to the hexcrawl or west marches play styles. In these play styles, stocking the wilderness with sites to explore is a (perhaps the) central responsibility of the referee. This will likely be familiar to DIY/OSR/classic gamers, where dropping modules onto a campaign map is common practice.
Below, I will first discuss the physical book and then consider the adventure sites contained within, both as modules for Forbidden Lands and for potential use with OSR games. (As shorthand, I refer to each entry using the title’s first noun (Spire, Vault, and so forth). In sum, the book as artifact is excellent; I have no complaints. All four entries are distinctive, creative, and clearly created with an eye to actual play at the table, especially compared to other offerings of modular adventure content. Further, the scope of adventure sites as suggested by Forbidden Lands is highly functional for the kind of exploration-focused game I like to run. Despite this, the trend for successful OSR products seems to be moving away from this level of modest complexity, toward the magnum opus.
Book and Layout
The physical book is gorgeous and feels well-made. The cover material has a texture that reminds me of painter’s canvas, but slightly thinner. The binding is stitched. I find the interior style attractive, all in high-contrast black and white, with a crisp and restrained aesthetic. Fantasy references are vanilla-adjacent, but with a fairy tale sensibility, closer to Warhammer’s Old World—but with less Renaissance—than to mainstream D&D. The layout is superficially pleasing but is weakened by often failing to keep related content on a single spread. One of the major advances in adventure layout I have seen over the past few years is organizing sub maps and map keys all within the same spread—for layout examples in this mode, see the Lamentations products Forgive Us and Cursed Chateau. Using spreads and excerpt-fragments would improve the usability of all the sites included. This is a difference between good and great, however; as is, the information design is okay but nothing special.
The presentation of each site uses what feels like a system-mandated template, which includes, in order: elevator pitch, background, legend, rumors, locations (this is basically the map key), monsters (or NPCs), and events. Using a template in this way involves a tradeoff. On the one hand, it guides referees (or supplement writers) toward table-relevant content (legends, rumors, events, and so forth). According to the Gamemaster’s Guide (p. 6), players are supposed to learn about the setting through play at the table. No homework! Score one point for the template. On the other hand, following the format strictly feels occasionally like a straight-jacket in practice, especially when entities are referenced prior to being introduced or described. The individual entries are short enough—less than 20 pages each—that the necessary page flipping remains manageable, but the process of initially learning about the sites as a referee is more disorienting than it needs to be.
Utility for OSR or Classic Game Referees
Forbidden Lands uses its own system, which is different enough from TSR D&D that converting actual numbers directly on the fly looks to be impractical. OSR/classic game referees will need to either A) be comfortable making up stats based on the descriptions or B) spend preparation time figuring out how to convert numbers more formally. I would personally be fine with A) and avoid B) as a waste of time, but take this into consideration based on your own referee style. The challenges presented are compatible with OSR type games. If you use XP = GP rules, you will probably need to add some value here and there.
Forbidden Lands organizes adventure site into three categories: castles, dungeons, and villages. The four included here are listed as castle (Spire), dungeon (Vault), village (Hexenwald), and dungeon (Graveyard), but the actual entries correspond only loosely to these types, with Graveyard being most conventional of the four. Spire is more a nightmare romp through a collection of situated vignettes than an architecture that can be explored.
Early on, Spire presents its legend as a Spencerian stanza, which gives some foreshadowing for the style of what is to come. Rather than spatial or geographic maps, the areas are loosely connected spaces of feeling or emotion, which lends a sense of immateriality, at least from the perspective of the referee. The areas are striking and distinct enough that they carry it, but be prepared to improvise the layout of elements such as a maze or a nightmarish “city of black spars” on your own as required. The meat of the site is several set-piece encounters, all of which are compelling. Also, it has a boss fight, so if you want to see what a boss fight by Patrick looks like, this is the adventure for you.
The Bright Vault is a prison for several demons. While it could be run as a simple dungeon heist, there is potential for more by playing the demons and their captor off against each other. This entry could have used some reorganization. Perhaps a solid orienting paragraph would have been enough. As is, using Vault requires a lot of bouncing around to figure out what is going on. For example, one of the major NPCs, regularly referenced throughout, is only described at the very end of the site. Like all the entries, Vault is short—18 pages including the art—so this is only a small inconvenience. The demons themselves, and the resulting situation, involve one of the stronger organizing themes of the four entries, though I think it may also require the strongest referee skills to juggle and roleplay the social interactions of the various entities.
Hexenwald is listed as a village, and could play the role of shelter from the wilderness, but really describes the homes of several related witches. Well developed locations such as this are underrepresented in modules despite having high utility for adding seasoning to a hexcrawl. The particular format of a Forbidden Lands site feels somewhat constraining here. I think it might be better served by some sort of more graphical relationship map layout, or some way to easily review the goals of the various witches without needing to reread the character descriptions again. If I end up using Hexenwald, I will probably add some countdown clocks for several of the listed events to increase the dynamism of the location and how it interfaces with the rest of the setting.
Graveyard of Thunder is a dungeon in the middle of a dinosaur graveyard. In some ways, it is the most traditional adventure site in the book, with a subterranean complex and several factions of humanoid creatures struggling for dominance. It could be played as a simple dungeon delve or involve more complex social posturing and diplomacy. The challenges and hazards are well designed to support creative play. There are also a number of evocative flourishes—I appreciate the wind chimes chamber—that remain grounded rather than dialing everything to eleven. If I had to make one criticism of the site design, apart from the layout and organization issues I already mentioned several times above, it is that the map mostly remains anchored to the horizontal plane, and a dungeon involving dinosaurs and caves might benefit from more verticality.
I wrote most of this post a while back, but just ran The Bright Vault today in person for a pickup game, to kick the tires on Black Hack 2E. Really, in my head I situated all four adventure sites, but the players’ approach took them to Vault, so that is what hit the table. It ran well in practice, though the layout does require substantial page flipping, as I suspected. One of my players correctly guessed the author based only on the play experience and the clue that it was written by an OSR author that he was at least somewhat familiar with.
The scope of these adventure sites—which is also the scope advocated for by Forbidden Lands generally—is perfect for OSR content. This scope demands of a writer more elaboration and detail than something like a one page dungeon while respecting the referee’s time. In contrast, the current mandates of commerce seem to be summoning ever greater, more baroque endeavors. I think it is inescapable that commercial pressure has led to an inflation of ambitiousness and page count over time.
As a bibliophile, I can attest to liking attractive, substantial, hardcover books with solid, stitched bindings. And according to James Raggi, retailers like books with spines. It would be hard to market adventure sites like this individually as physical products, apart from as zines, which seem in practice to have some commercial ceiling. Spire gets away with presenting sites of this scope by being a compilation and also by riding on the coattails of a successful crowd funding venture for a deluxe format core game boxed set.
This recent inflationary trend has a different character than the simple pressures of payment by word, which bloat an essentially simple, boring thing until it reaches some commercially appropriate extent. In contrast to the bloat problems of yesteryear, newer material tends to be higher quality, both in terms of ideas and in terms of production values, due to community advances in techniques and the proliferation of new social media platforms.
Though there are counterexamples, such as Witchburner, the trend seems strongly to be that the market is rewarding more ambitious projects, with larger scope. This might be good for publishers and creators, and perhaps for the cause of game materials as art, but I am unconvinced that a shelf full of monumental works best serves the practical need of referees. This is a long-winded way of restating appreciation for the scope of the entries in Spire. I think the most useful tools for hexcrawls—and maybe megadungeons too, which can be well served by modular presentation—are probably closer in size to Forbidden Lands adventure sites than to the currently proliferating larger works.
In terms of RPG publishing, Spire is also notable for, in Ben’s words, being the first time a non-OSR book has intentionally hired an all-OSR writing team.
Price: part of a pre-order bundle that was, all together, 799 Swedish Krona—approximately $90 USD
Details: PledgeManager preorder, includes shipping
The Spire of Quetzel was part of a bundle that also included the main Forbidden Lands Boxed Set, the Raven’s Purge campaign book, dice, cards, and PDFs of everything.
See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.
You can buy the fancy hardcover version here and the PDF version here. The main product line page is here.
Woodfall bills itself as a dark fantasy mini setting. I would describe it as a setting toolkit, inspired in form by Vornheim, but with less emphasis on content generation tools and much more emphasis on particular realized locales. There are more fish in this basket than manuals about how to fish or tools for fishing. I backed Woodfall based on the strength of the sample art, and if you appreciate the gloomy storybook aesthetic (which I do), the final product delivers on that dimension in spades. For the physical book, the format is roughly digest sized perfect bound (print on demand) softcover. Within are 32 pages describing the settlement of Woodfall, 11 adventure locales of several pages each, and nine pages of new monsters. There are also subsystems for harvesting resources from monster hunting and crafting items. The PDF is 96 pages including cover and everything. Overall, the writing is concise, though more functional than artful, and play usability looks high. The art is profuse and evocative. On the downside, Woodfall’s tone is saturated with unsubtle, somewhat distracting satire.
Though I described the writing as lacking artistry, the illustrations more than make up for any shortcoming in the prose, and on balance the writing is fine but unexceptional. In terms of visual style, I find Woodfall to be one of the more enjoyable independently produced RPG products to have come out over the past few years. Even just the map of the Woodfall settlement alone is a fantastic, memorable locale that faces off respectably against any other town I can bring to mind from other modules. Memorable settlements breathe life into hexcrawls, but remain scarce as supplements. Visual presentation grants elements that might otherwise be overly prosaic or tedious a gloss of game utility, such as a a diagram of economic resource flows, though proof of this potential will be in the play. The visual component of Woodfall was clearly a labor of love, and nothing feels phoned in. Woodfall’s second strength is unfailing attention to game utility, with consistently inventive and generally non-generic ideas. Much of the complexity lies in relationships between elements. For example, the presence of a particular non-player character in the wilderness dampens the danger from a particular monster. Players can learn about and make use of this fact creatively. Another, in the form of a wandering monster: gossip earfish lurk around the swamp listening in on conversations … have tiny mouths and communicate exclusively in very faint wispers [sic: caught a typo] (p. 74). These two examples only scratch the surface, and are the kind of thing that makes a module more than simply an exercise in stocking a map. The result is a rich, articulated framework that looks like it will respond in satisfying ways to player actions and choices.
That all sounds fantastic, but Woodfall does have one substantial weakness, which is a somewhat off key and inexpert sense of humor. Unlike Melan (see here for his review), I read Woodfall’s subtext as satirical rather than po-faced, more Addams Family than revolutionary vanguard. However, even tongue in cheek, the tone is a bit much and somewhat awkward. For example, the fairy liberation front—a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries (p. 31)—is the kind of charming nonsense that often (inevitably?) emerges from table chat organically. I consider this to be a true shortcoming, rather than just an expression of my taste, and independent of any particular politics, because the players at my table (or yours) will readily add this finishing noise themselves, and it will be funnier, tailored as it will be to events of the moment and the idiosyncrasies of your table. Noisms’ post about D&D as straight man expresses a similar idea in a more general way.
A handful of other points deserve mention, both positive and negative. The hex map is usable and attractive but lacks coordinate numbers. The secondary locales are evocative and well-illustrated, but only lightly detailed, so referees that prefer more complex puzzles or challenges may feel poorly served (though as noted above, the relationships between the elements are rich with potential for exploitation by creative players). The swamp factions matrix—which captures alliances and enmities—is filled with mostly game relevant entries, but would be more useful with text labels accompanying the faction icons. As written, the setting of Woodfall secularizes sorcery in the presented setting, which tilts the atmosphere toward disenchantment. Curiously, this is at odds with the evocative illustrations. A referee running a low magic game will need to adjust descriptions accordingly. Finally, there are few crafting systems available for classic/OSR games, and the approach here, fully illustrated of course, looks both tractable and fun.
Personally, I consider the overbearing humor to be a venial sin, especially given Woodfall’s many other strengths. Unfortunately, the increased reliance on associative rather than deliberative thinking in the current intellectual climate means that many people will likely tune out before giving it a chance. Put another way, the badge of humorless activist boyfriend (to mangle Melan’s stamp of disapproval) may ruin what seems like an otherwise useful supplement for readers with condescension detection meters dialed up to full sensitivity. Ultimately, I think using Woodfall’s framework with modified tone and references would involve minimal hassle, even improvising at runtime, and offer substantial payoff. Considering the strengths and weaknesses of Woodfall, I wonder if there is a place for the module equivalent of silent cinema, supplements having minimal text that deliver content primarily through illustration and graphic design. Inventory v1 (my review) or A Land Called Tarot (AV Club review) could perhaps inform this kind of product.
Here are some disorganized thoughts about the new Aquaman movie. There will be some light spoilers, but who are you kidding? Nobody goes to this movie for the plot. More below the big image of Atlantis, in case you want to bail.
There is a copy of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror on the coffee table that that camera ostentatiously caresses during the prologue sequence. You know that you will be getting a Hollywood take on deep ones or something along those lines. And you do. Deep ones andscary friendly Cthulhu beast.
There is a scene quote of a Tie Fighter dogfight pursuit, underwater, with Ocean Master standing in as Vader.
Speaking of Ocean Master, the actors are, how do I put this, visually enhanced using digital means. It was well done generally, and presented no distraction for me during the movie, but afterwards I went to see who played Ocean Master, and (no shade) but Patrick Wilson is not the blond I was expecting.
The plot is in structure highly similar to that of the recent Black Panther movie, but with Atlanteans rather than Africans, and an error of commission rather than an error of omission on the part of the wicked king. There is a kingdom with magical technology hidden in the modern world, a ritual gladiator challenge of kings, and a big battle scene at the end that I swear Peter Jackson stealth-directed. (I found the battle scene in Aquaman more entertaining than the one at the end of Panther, though.) There are, among other things, crab mecha, giant incendiary catapults that are also seemingly crabs, fish people in power armor, and what look like an underwater crustacean take on space marines. Ocean Master jousts to battle on a colossal caparisoned barracuda rather than use his underwater spaceships with lasers.
Yes, the movie is probably too long, and the plot is 90% predictable, and sometimes you can see it in the actors’ eyes—Do I really have to say this line?—but there are a few sequences of close to cinematographic brilliance, such as the descent into the trench during the storm with the swarms of deep ones, revealed by the light of a red flare, or the chase/fight over the roofs of Sicily. The architectural spectacles of old and new Atlantis are stunning at times as well.
The scary friendly Cthulhu-beast is 90% Smaug. Which is fun, I suppose.
This Aquaman clearly checks the box for the “rugged” Grindr Tribe. I get the angle, and Jason Momoa pulls it off. I could do with the stylist turning down the Rob Zombie dial slightly for the next movie though.
And finally, if you ever wanted more Joseph Campbell in your superhero movies, Aquaman has you covered.
Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1 covers the first six Final Fantasy games, only three of which were originally released in North America. Physical quality is high: the binding is stitched and the paper quality is worthy of an art book. Props to Dark Horse. The overall content and layout is geared toward nostalgia, but that takes nothing away from the beautiful artwork. See the linked video for my full review (duration two minutes & 36 seconds).
Price: $44.70 CAD ($22.84 USD on Amazon.com at the time of this writing)
Forbidden Lands is a recently translated Swedish RPG that has many elements, both mechanical and aesthetic, placing it in the old school rules/hexcrawl tradition. The crowd-funding effort billed the game as retro open-world survival fantasy. The text focuses on exploration, emphasizes that player choices should drive the narrative, announces that player character death happens, and offers many random tables to help generate content.
The art is all black and white. It reminds me of Mentzer’s edition of Basic D&D in terms of style. The tone is, at first glance, quite vanilla. There are humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, goblins, ogres, dragons, and so forth. However, details sometimes tell another, often deliciously wicked, story. For example:
Teramalda had been taken prisoner, but her armor could not be opened. The hot-headed dwarven lord Garmar Four-Beard, drunk on power and alcohol, had the priestess thrown on a bed of hot coals during the victory banquet at Lumra, to bake her like a shellfish. He swore to eat her heart himself after it had been tenderized into submission. Perhaps the god Rust chose to heed Teramalda’s prayers for martyrdom, because the armor with her scorched body suddenly tore free from its shackles, rose from the fiery coals, and killed Garmar and his bodyguards. Since that day, this creature, a rusty suit of armor, roams through Ravenland hunting for enemies to slay. (GM Guide, p. 24)
Zygofer’s daughter, Therania, had taken to the young king and offered him to be her husband and slave in return for his life. When he turned her down, she had him killed, brought him back to life with her necrokinetics, and took his dead body for a lover. (GM Guide, p. 30)
They claim that since the age of myth, they have built and expanded the bones of the world, a sphere so large you can barely see it curving at the horizon. The sun and stars are hearths in faraway forges the god has placed to entice the builders until they can use them when they have built their way there. … There are massive ruins across the Forbidden Lands, seemingly useless constructions the dwarves claim are the foundation for the next layer of the world. (GM Guide, p. 56-57)
The so-called “whiners” are small, skittish humanoids who are hunted by both orcs and humans, since they are said to have “sweet meat”. It is said their living flesh has a healing and fattening ability, so infected or deep wounds covered by parts of a whiner heal quickly. … For all these reasons, whiners are caught in traps and held in cramped cages thus allowing them to be “harvested.” This process is, of course, very painful and in the end lethal to whiners, which is why they hate all other kin … (GM Guide, p. 69)
Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 10
That’s a whole lot of fantasyland names, but it’s memorable enough that I don’t even care. It feels a little bit like paint by numbers (so what are my orcs like?), but then the result ends up being creative more often than not. Undead are apparently a fact of life, just because, but “restless dead are rarely aggressive” and people often “go to the burial ground to sooth the restless dead with music and simple conversation, speaking to them as if to a child” (GM Guide, p. 45). Of course there are liches and so forth to destroy also, but these sorts of details give some parts of the official setting a pastoral, mournful air.
It is a quirky mix of precious campaign world with procedural generation and dynamic events. History, gods, and kin (what would be races in mainstream D&D lingo) take up a full 54 letter-sized pages near the start of the Gamemaster’s Guide. The setting has some elements that I would probably jettison, but I did actually read all of that material, and I usually end up bouncing off setting prose pretty quickly. I would probably replace the blood mist with something else, for example.
I will leave most discussion of game systems and mechanics for another post, but I will note that a great deal of care on the referee-facing side of things has been paid to providing functional tools that produce concrete results rather than just principles and platitudes. I have nothing against principles, but some meat on bones is nice too. The final few sections of the GM Guide (approximately 80 pages) are dedicated to guidelines for creating adventures sites, including a host of random tables, and three worked examples representing a town, a dungeon, and a castle (about 20 pages each). Some of the table entries are relatively pedestrian. The oddity of the village inn is… drum roll… a stomped floor! And the village is famous for… delicious bread! And the village oddity is… full of flowers. Wait okay that is kind of interesting; I can work with that. To conclude this overview, here is the map for the worked “castle” adventure site, Weatherstone: