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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Dragonmeet, Red and Pleasant Land

Despite having lived in the UK for over a decade on the current stretch, I had never been to a Dragonmeet until this past weekend. This year I went partly off my own bat and partly as a volunteer for Isles of Darkness, a live gaming society I'm part of. I didn't get to do any actual gaming, but I got to meet and talk to people, to see some cool new games, to sell a few things in the Bring & Buy and to buy some things I wanted, so I was happy with the experience.

My photo of our booth came out blurry, but this was the view from it. 
I believe they were reporting about 1,500 people through the door, which was more than in previous years. Certainly the trade hall seemed to be doing a lively business and the lines for tickets were long. I thought the venue was good, although for some reason it was really difficult to get into the car park.

I'm going to do this post in two parts. First, brief list of cool stuff in no particular order:


  • It was nice to briefly meet Dave Chapman, whose "RPG a Day" blog series helped energise me to think about gaming in general again. 
  • I got to see some friends I rarely see. 
  • Live recording of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff was lots of fun, and featured a complete campaign idea generated within a few minutes. I wonder if the hosts' lists of un-run campaigns are as long and frustrating as mine. 
  • Response to IoD booth was very positive. I hope that this is a trend for us, both in improving our outreach and in making our games more accessible to new players. 
  • I got a cute little notebook from Squarehex; the sheets have graph paper on one side and lined paper on the other, so when you open it you've got a map on the left side and the key on the right. It's A6, so it's more going to be groups of dungeon rooms than whole dungeons, but that's OK by me. Also they are currently Kickstarting an A5 version, which has just hit its goal. If I hadn't got one for myself, that A6 would have made a great stocking stuffer for me. 
  • I picked up a copy of Maelstrom: Domesday, a variant of Maelstrom set in the 11th century -- which is to say a game that might as well have had "play this, James Holloway" written on the cover. Expect a full review once I've finished reading it. Both the original and the new version are available on DriveThru (and currently on sale!) from Arion Games. I am pretty excited about this; from what I saw of it, it looks like exactly my thing, and it's clear the creator likes a lot of the same things I like (game designers come from the oddest backgrounds; this guy's an immunologist). Will it live up to the excitement? Come back next time to find out!
  • I also got a copy of Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne, a little story game about, well, witch burnings. I'm not sure it's medieval history per se, but again, grubby middle ages seemed to be a thing for me this year. Again, I'll review that when I get the chance. 
But the big purchase for me was Red and Pleasant Land, Zak S's latest offering for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG (although effectively for D&D in any of its many incarnations). This thing is ... man. It is pretty good. And it's pretty. It's hardbound, but with -- is it called a cloth binding? That sort of textured cloth cover rather than the usual glossy binding you get in RPGs. It's got a bound-in red bookmark. More than anything else, it looks like a book of fairy tales. I mean, exactly, to the point where I wonder if this is a coincidence. 

Hans Christian Andersen for visual comparison, little Skaven for size comparison. 
And it looks gorgeous inside as well; lovely soft heavy paper, intelligent and tasteful use of colour. It makes most full-colour rulebooks look like some old bullshit.  

Initially, this made me want to tear up all my dungeon maps, but now it just makes me want to make some new ones. 

Continuing the Vornheim trend of printing right inside the cover. 

Lots of new monsters. 
OK, so it looks terrific. What's it about? RPL is basically a setting guide to a place called Voivodja, otherwise The Place of Unreason, a land where the rules of conventional reality are treated with a certain levity. The land was once entirely covered by the palace of a mad king, but now his gardens grow wild over it and the ruins of the palace form a substrate of "interiors" (ie dungeons) under it. Rival armies of vampires, each one of them with its own goofy-yet-creepy character, strive for mastery, so you've got plenty of plots, alliances, battles, intrigues, covert missions, hidden agendas, all that kind of thing. As I'd come to expect from Zak S's previous book, Vornheim, you not only get examples of these but lots of good ways to generate them on the fly. I am a big fan of the randomly-generated Intercepted Communique Table. 

Voivodja is basically a mashup of Alice in Wonderland and vampires, which doesn't sound like a combination that would work but does. I think this is because vampires, at least in many vampire stories, are sort of petty and obsessive in the same way that the characters in the Alice stories are. I mean, a mad monarch who lives in the ruined splendour of a crumbling palace, pursuing ever more cruel and recondite pleasures while everything falls to chaos around her ... that's either a vampire or an Alice character, depending on which angle you look at it from, right? And RPL succeeds in looking at the thing from both angles simultaneously, not 100% perfectly -- there were one or two moments where a piece of either straight whimsy or straight horror felt a little out-of-place to me -- but pretty close. 

I mentioned Vornheim, which I'm a big fan of, and this is definitely similar in some ways, but it's much more worked-out and detailed -- Vornheim was packed with usable stuff, but this is just so much larger. Let's look at what's in here: 

  • A guide to the setting, including not just places but customs, including weddings, a duelling code and how to act like a weird homicidal Alice character. 
  • A whole new character class, the Alice or Fool, with a random level-up table and a new ability, Exasperation. 
  • 47 monsters, including a shit-hot random demon (or "Guest" as they're known in Voivodja) generation table that reminds one strongly of Realms of Chaos
  • Two good-sized dungeons, being the headquarters of the two main antagonists. Making two whimsical-vampire-monarch's-castle dungeons different from each other is no mean feat!
  • Some maps of sample locations, showing each of the setting's three main terrain types. 
  • Systems for running duels, large battles and characters with social rank. 
  • A shedload of random tables, including location generators, adventure hooks, an "I Search the Body" table and a way of determining where characters who missed a session have been. 
  • Player handouts, including a fragmentary map for one of the dungeons. 

So I was reading this at the con and lamenting that although it's great, my own D&D game is more of a mud-'n'-blood, scoundrels-on-the-run sort of a thing and I'd find it hard to put something as out there as this book into it without it seeming like a jarring transition. The person I was talking to pointed out that what this setting sounded like, with its mad monarchs and weird creatures and gardens run amok, was the Hedge from Changeling: the Lost. And it is. In fact, I think it would contain a heck of a lot of good material, not just to lift whole but as an inspiration for constructing a local Hedge guide. 

I'm going to get some use out of this -- I can already see the bits I'm going to swipe -- but mainly it's just inspiring me to try to do something as good within the idiom of my game as this is good within its own. 

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