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Isle of the Unknown
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Jukka S. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/15/2012 05:11:10
Review originally posted at http://nitessine.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/review-isle-of-the-
-unknown/

Along with Carcosa, last Thursday saw the release of Isle of the Unknown, a 125-page full-colour hardcover setting book. Like Carcosa, it is written by Geoffrey McKinney and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it is a sandbox setting.

The pages of Isle of the Unknown are liberally sprinkled with art, from small monster pieces by Amos Orion Sterns to the full-page magic user illustrations by Jason Rainville. It is laid out in a clear, readable fashion and is nice to look at. Unfortunately, the full-page pieces have printed out rather dark, which is clear when comparing them to the PDF version, which looks much nicer.

The PDF is not as nifty as Carcosa, in that there are no hyperlinks in the text or the map, but what it does do better than Carcosa is pagination. While Carcosa’s page numbers do not match up from page to PDF due to each page spread being counted as a single page, this has somehow been fixed in Isle of the Unknown. I have no comprehension of the wizardry required for such feats, but evidently it can be done. This is the one thing that Isle of the Unknown does better than Carcosa. Mind you, the lack of hyperlinks in Isle of the Unknown is not as bad a thing as it might be in another type of book, because the only thing you would want hyperlinked is the hex descriptions, all of which are easily accessible via bookmarks.

The two books are good examples of how PDF publishing should be done in general. You have all these interesting options to increase usability that the dead tree edition is lacking, so why not use them? I think the bare minimum should be an option to turn off background art so stuff can be printed without wasting any printer ink, a liquid that, by weight, is more expensive than human blood, crude oil, or gold. At least nobody is trying to peddle us files without bookmarks anymore, though I own a few examples like that as well.

Ruleswise, it’s old-school D&D and ought to be compatible with pretty much whatever version you want. Armour Class is expressed in terms like “as leather”, so you won’t even need to figure out whether it’s counting up or down or where the starting point is.
The Lay of the Land

Isle of the Unknown is a sandbox setting. We have an island, slightly under 35,000 square miles in size, divided up into 330 hexes, each of which covers the area of some 86 square miles. Each hex has something of interest. Broadly speaking, these can be divided up into monsters, magic-users, statues and towns. The latter are of the least interest, at least to the writer, and we’re only given population figures and perhaps a plot hook for each.

The book’s setting defaults to a sort of medieval Mediterranean. Architecture and statues are described as Greek or Roman, a few NPCs referred to as Turkish or Arabic and references to the real world are abundant. However, as the preface explains, everything can be changed easily, which is also why no proper names are given. Nearly all of the clerics on the island are described as wearing red surcoats with white crosses, which is how the Knight Hospitallers used to dress at one point in their history. Incidentally, the introduction also mentions that “the societies, flora, and fauna of this predominantly mountainous and wooded isle resemble those of the French territory of Auvergne circa A.D. 1311,” where the Hospitallers controlled a grand priory. While I am not certain and there’s a woeful gap in my education here, I suspect that McKinney is trying to work in a reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne. I wonder if reading the stories would give some sort of context to the isle and its weirdness.

Anyway, the three other things this island has in abundance. Weird monsters! I haven’t counted, but I think there are over a hundred different monsters on the isle. These range from giant parrots that are on fireand humanoid swans with human faces on their chests that shoot strength-draining feathers to a vaguely lizardlike creature that “looks like a slightly elongated raspberry”, and koalas with suction cups. All of them are illustrated, which is nice, since some of them (like the raspberry thing) would be really difficult to visualize otherwise. They don’t have much in the way of context or ecology or any sort of explanation. That’s all up to the GM. What matters is that they’re there, they’re weird, and most of them are hostile.

Then there are magic users. Here and there, scattered across the isle, are secluded magic users with strange and unique powers. They are mostly not hostile, and indeed, fighting them is almost certainly a losing proposition. Not all of them are illustrated, but thirteen of them are illustrated in a series of zodiac-themed, full-page art pieces that I like very much. They are also weird.

Finally, there are statues. Scattered across the isle are mysterious magical statues with strange properties. Some of them are hot to the touch, some of them grant blessings, some of them stand a good chance of killing you. The only illustrated statue is the one on the cover.

There isn’t much in the way of history or background to the isle and its high strangeness, just a list of legends that may or may not be true. The hexes do not exist in vacuums, though, and construct small implied stories of their own. For instance, the villagers in this hex consider the forest in that hex a taboo and may get cross if the PCs go there. Such detail is sparse, however.

In conclusion, Isle of the Unknown is a very good-looking book. It’s an interesting sandbox setting, though the weirdness wanders into the realm of absurd comedy a bit too often to remain effective. The cartoonish art style of the monsters does not exactly help. Still, a capable GM knows what to keep, what to drop and what to adjust, and though it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere, I get the feeling that the setting isn’t even meant to be used straight out of the book.

For a full disclosure, I received my copy from the publisher as thanks for helping him unload the pallets of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown, and am probably strongly biased.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Isle of the Unknown
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Carcosa
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Jukka S. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/15/2012 05:10:05
Review originally posted at http://nitessine.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/review-carcosa/

So, it’s finally here. The anticipated reprint of Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, finally came out yesterday, after all sorts of printing and delivery delays.

The wait was worth it.

What we’ve got here is a 288-page, A5-sized hardcover. The art by Rich Longmore is black and white, but the maps of Robert Altbauer are in glorious (and a bit garish) colour. In addition, the pages themselves are subtly coloured, with faded hues of green and purple playing in the margins and behind the text. It does not, I should hasten to add, hamper readability, but makes the whole book seem more like some sort of alien grimoire. The layout is clean, the art is good, and the book is overall a very stylish package. It also has a lovely smell.

There’s also a PDF version available, and it’s one of the best gaming PDFs I’ve seen. It’s layered for printer-friendliness, bookmarked, and linked up the wazoo. Even the map hexes are linked to the pages where they are described. This is excellent work, and I’d like to see it become the industry standard, though I don’t have much hope of that happening. Neither Posthuman Studios nor Paizo, who otherwise know their PDF work, have gone quite this far with their stuff (Posthuman doesn’t have links, Paizo doesn’t have layers). This is how you take advantage of the electronic format, kids. The only complaint I have is that since in the PDF a single page spread counts as a single page, the page numbers on the book and the PDF no longer match up.
What Is It?

Carcosa is a setting and rules supplement for your old D&D game or retroclone. Its native system is LotFP’s house system, Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, but pretty much all retroclones are more or less mutually compatible anyway and there’s no reason this wouldn’t work in your campaign of Labyrinth Lord or Mentzer’s Red Box D&D (though like all most retroclone stuff, this one uses the ascending Armour Class [starting at 12, as LotFP's does]).

The genres of the work would be the weird tale and sword & planet. The influences it names or suggests include Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Howard’s Worms of the Earth and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and, of course, Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow. I am also reminded of other things – Jack Vance, August Derleth, Lord Dunsany, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otso Ilmari – though I’m pretty sure that last one is not numbered among McKinney’s inspirations, no matter how unconscious or indirect.

It is like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, if Expedition to the Barrier Peaks had been horror. There are no demihumans in the world of Carcosa, just 13 races of men, each a different colour, from green to white to black to new colours like dolm, jale and ulfire, from A Voyage to Arcturus, though also evoking The Colour out of Space. There’s a very good reason this book doesn’t have colour art outside of the maps. It’s gonna make painting miniatures tricky. There are no magic items, just the technological armaments of the Space Aliens. There is no magic missile or sleep, there are the Blasphemous Glyphs of the Night Ocean and the Ninety-Six Chants of the Leprous One.

The book starts with a few unconventional dice conventions. Under the Carcosa rules, whenever combat begins, everyone first rolls from a chart what their hit dice type will be for this combat and then uses dice of that type to roll their hit points. Your hit dice might be d12s in one fight and d4s in the next. The same is true for Shub-Niggurath. Damage is determined every round in a similar fashion. This is rather quirky, and there’s also a suggestion on how to handle things if you elect not to use these rules. It seems like combat in Carcosa is unpredictable and deadly business.

Then there are a few new rules for characters, including the sorcerer class, which is basically same as fighter, except they can use rituals. Incidentally, Carcosa uses only two character classes – the fighter and the sorcerer. No clerics, no magic-users, no demihuman races. The book doesn’t even use specialists (LotFP’s name for the thief class), but mentions that they will not violate the tone. There are also a couple of pages of psionics rules. Characters with high enough mental stats have a chance of being psionic, which is rolled at character generation.

What there is not is a lot on the setting itself. There are no historical timelines, just mentions here and there that Space Aliens (described like they Greys) have a colony on the planet, the human races were created by Snake-Men untold millennia ago and that the Primordial Ones (Lovecraft’s elder things) manipulated the civilization of Carcosa until someone let the shoggoths out and everything went to hell. There is also very little on the human races, though it’s mentioned that the natives in Peter Jackson’s King Kong are at about the proper level of sophistication.

Oh, and alignment determines only how you stand in relation to the Great Old Ones. Lawful is against, chaotic is for, neutrals try to avoid the whole business.

Then there’s the magic of Carcosa. Spellcasting takes the form of rituals, and all rituals are for summoning or controlling the gods and monsters of the world. There are 96 different rituals in the book, all with names that drip purple prose, such as The Sixth Undulation of the Tentacled One or Serpentine Whispers of the Blue-Litten Pillars.

So, magic in Carcosa applies to the Great Old Ones, and was developed by the Snake-Men. This means it’s Bad Stuff. Pretty much everything that is not a banishment ritual will require human sacrifice, all described in a clinical and detailed fashion, like this: “The Sorcerer must find or dig a large pit with walls and floor of coal. The sacrifices—101 Dolm children—must then be bound and flung into the pit. The two-hour ritual requires the Sorcerer to don the above-mentioned armor and climb into the pit and slay each sacrifice with an obsidian axe. Afterwards he fires the pit.” (The Primal Formula of the Dweller) And there are worse rituals. Like, Josef Fritzl kind of worse. “We could illustrate this ritual but it’d then become illegal to sell or possess under obscenity laws in several major markets” kind of worse. The cover sleeve for the book says “Warning: For Adults Only! Contains explicit descriptions and illustrations of black magic and violence.” It’s not kidding.

The rituals are surprisingly uncomfortable reading, and really drive home the point that people who deal with the tentacled stuff are evil. They are to be opposed. Then there are the banishment rituals for putting down that which (hopefully) someone else has called up and for the most part require no sacrifice whatsoever, though Banishment of the Lightless Chasm, for driving off the Squamous Worm of the Pit, requires you to kill a snake.

It’s charming how naturally you can get a campaign concept and a motivation for your characters just from the spell list. There’s nothing in the book about how adventurers fit in the world or the society (as far as it exists), or what sort of adventures they should or could have, but such things flow naturally from the spell list. I mean, unlike in most D&D settings, where adventurers are outsiders from society and regarded as strange and dangerous people, in Carcosa going out to kill sorcerers is actually a sane and rational reaction. This, to me, is the strongest horror element in the setting.

After the rituals, we get monster stats and descriptions. Carcosa has its own interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos. Here, Azathoth dwells in the centre of the planet and the races of B’yakhee, Deep Ones, the Great Race, Mi-Go, Primordial Ones and Shoggoths are all spawned by Shub-Niggurath. Cthulhu is still imprisoned in sunken R’lyeh, though. This section also features long, descriptive quotations from H.P. Lovecraft, which I approve of. Yes, you can fight Azathoth. No, you’re not likely to win.

The largest section of the book is the sandbox itself, 400 hexes’ worth of the planet of Carcosa. One of the hexes being ten miles across, this translates to 86 square miles per hex and a total of 34,880 square miles, or slightly larger than the country of Jordan. Each of the hexes has two points of interest described. For an example, let’s take hex 0115. It contains the following two points of interest: “Castle of 6 Jale Men led by a chaotic 7th-level Sorcerer” and “A handful of curious and ancient roadways crisscross the withered heaths of this hex. The roads appear to be made of huge slabs of granite skillfully pounded into the earth. They glow with a soft light in darkness. Any attempts to remove the slabs will fail.”

There’s loads of stuff the PCs can run across and that the GM can build their own plots around. Who is that sorcerer in the castle and what’s his agenda? No idea, it’s the GM’s job to make something up.

Carcosa has a presentation I feel is very typical of old school D&D. You’re presented with a lot of stuff, but very little in the way of advice on how to use it or what to do with it. While it works for your normal Tolkien and Howard fantasy since everyone already knows that stuff, I think that more outré material such as Carcosa could have a bit more hand-holding. Fortunately, the writing is good and positively dripping with atmosphere and inspiration, which eases the Game Master’s job in this respect – and, well, you don’t need to specify that the people who are sacrificing children to call up tentacled abominations from beyond the stars are the bad guys.

We are also given an introductory adventure called “The Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer”, which details, over 20 pages, some of the points of interest in hex 2005. The titular Gardens, of course, are a dungeon.

After that it’s some helpful tables for random encounters, random robots, Space Alien armaments, spawn of Shub-Niggurath and so forth, as well as reference tables for rituals.
My Thoughts

Carcosa is a very good book. Apart from being extremely well put together, it is written in an evocative manner and brings the setting to life despite not really detailing it much. It conjures up images from films like 10,000 B.C. and Salute of the Jugger. It’s a primitive, post-apocalyptic world, where people are preoccupied with survival and appeasing gods whose existence leaves no room for doubt. And they hate you, personally.

It is a weird and terrible place. A bit of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, a bit of Vance’s Dying Earth, a bit of Burroughs’ Barsoom, perhaps shades of Gor in the mixture of high technology and Stone Age culture. Unlike the modern man of Lovecraft’s tales, the mankind of Carcosa is acutely aware of their cosmic insignificance, though probably unable to articulate it.

This is excellent work. If you have an interest in old school D&D and aren’t put off by the more extreme material in the rituals section, you really have no reason not to buy this. I can’t really find anything I could consider an error or mistake or a bad idea. Even the lack of real setting information kinda works to the book’s advantage. It really is an alien, unknown, perhaps unknowable world. There is a sense of mystery and wonder. I am usually not a fan of such bare bones sandboxes, preferring something more akin to Paizo’s Kingmaker adventure path, but damn if this isn’t good enough for me to make an exception. And seriously, that PDF is a thing of beauty.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know James Edward Raggi IV, the publisher, and received my copy of the book (As well as Isle of the Unknown. And pizza.) from him as thanks for helping him unload the four cargo pallets of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown (I feel like Satan’s little helper). In other words, I’m probably biased as all hell.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Carcosa
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Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
Publisher: FableForge
by Jukka S. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/15/2012 05:08:01
Review originally posted at http://nitessine.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/review-enter-the-s-
hadowside/

Enter the Shadowside is a new roleplaying game from FableForge. It’s available as an affordable 75-page PDF. It’s a modern-day supernatural conspiracy game written by Marco Leon. The first thing it reminds me of is Unknown Armies. In Enter the Shadowside, player characters have spirits riding around inside their heads. The second thing it reminds me of is Sorcerer.

The Shadowside in the title refers to the game’s parallel universe, or alternate reality, or dimension of dreams, or whatever you wish to call it. It’s a reality overlaid upon our own, where the souls of the dead go and the ghosts come from. It’s created by the thoughts and dreams of people, much like in Planescape. Belief Creates Reality, or “Cogito Ergo Mundus” (which literally means “I think, therefore the universe” and is grammatically as correct). The different religions of the world are explained as merely different ways to contextualize the Shadowside and its phenomena.

The PCs belong to one of nine—or seven, really—organizations or secret societies that are nicely laid out in a three-by-three grid with the axes of Altruistic–Neutral–Egoistic and Orderly–Neutral–Anarchic. The Altruistic Orderly and Egoistic Anarchic organizations are recommended only for the endgame of a campaign and even then as NPCs. Indeed, they aren’t even described with the rest of the organizations in the organization chapter, but in a special appendix at the end of the book that says “DO NOT READ ANYTHING BEYOND THIS POINT UNLESS YOU ARE A STORYHOST AND HAVE RUN AT LEAST SIX SESSIONS!!” I confess to cheating, here.

“StoryHost” (sic), incidentally, is the game’s Game Master figure.

The organizations, each of which have their own paranormal skills, are Fujin’s Blood, who are a mystical Yakuza; Diabolus Malleos (a.k.a. Διαβόλου σφύρα), who are the local Knights Templar; Somosa, the Voodoo guys; the Sisterhood of Salem, who are witches, vampires and werewolves in the WoD vein; the Greater Thelema Society, the descendants of the Hellfire Club by way of Aleister Crowley; Accelletrix, who are the magical megacorporation; and finally, the only one that I consider really interesting, the SCaV3NG3R.

The Scav3ngers are the mystical Anonymous. They’ve found the occult reality through “creepypasta”, the urban legends and ghost stories of the internet generation, on various forums. I think the concept is interesting and sort of grounded in reality in a way that the others aren’t. Their slang is inspired by 4chan and other online forums. They call the apocalypse “Longcatnarök”, which captures the gleeful irreverence of the culture. This is good stuff, and I’m sort of interested in seeing the eventual SCaV3NG3R sourcebook. The game is coyly suggesting that these are the heroes of the setting by using certain of their slang terms as the game’s core terminology. For instance, in the gameworld, Hierogamy and Shadowside are the Scavenger terms for these things, while the other organizations use their own names.

The game’s system looks lightweight and workable (I must confess to not having had the opportunity to test it in practice), though the resolution mechanic involves the use of a table called the Jacob’s Ladder. I understand the motivation to inject flavour into the ruleset itself, but the introduction of a chart you must refer every time you roll and check the target number with a ruler is inelegant. The character sheet also contains some potential for great confusion.

The World-Turtle is where you mark down your character’s stats, a number in each of the boxes. Simple, right? Except that once your character enters Hierogamy (i.e. gets a spirit riding in their head) you also mark down the spirit’s stats in those boxes, in a different corner, and in the middle you put the combined value. The Turtle looks nice, but will end up cluttered and confusing.

In general, the visual side is where the game fails. The game is laid out, for reasons beyond my mortal comprehension, in a hideous three-column format with a typeface that is slightly too large, leading to very short lines and an unpleasant reading experience. There’s a reason the two-column format is the standard. The short lines also lead to great many syllable breaks, which the word processor has inserted more or less at random (well, not randomly, but I’ve never seen a word processor that can reliably and accurately do syllabification in English). The font itself is Arial, which should never be used for anything and commits an aesthetic crime with the introduction of drop cap initials. Seriously. Two columns, and for all that is good and pure, find a font that can differentiate between the capital I and the lowercase l. Even Comic Sans can do that.

Enter the Shadowside doesn’t explain much. The GM is called the StoryHost, which you are not told anywhere. The term just pops up in the middle of character generation. The game uses six- and twenty-sided dice, which you must figure out by carefully reading the Mechanics chapter. It could use a page in the beginning going over the basics: this is how the game is different from other roleplaying games, these are the dice you need, the basic rolling mechanic goes like this. Another thing I find myself wanting is a StoryHost chapter telling you what to do with the game, what kind of adventures to run, perhaps a recommendation on whether all the PCs should be from the same organization or if a mixture is possible. In general, there should be a few lines on how the organizations regard one another. These omissions limit the usability of the game and make it seem like a work in progress instead of a finished product. Also, someone new to roleplaying games could probably apprehend that this is a roleplaying game but not, perhaps, what a roleplaying game is. A short introductory adventure might not be out of place.

The game has an interesting community aspect. There’s a subreddit for it, and the author espouses the concept of “open canon”. Basically, if you want to write your own Enter the Shadowside supplement and sell it, go for it. He retains copyright to the game, but will not demand royalties. He also reserves the right to say what’s official and what isn’t. I think this could’ve been more succinctly presented as some kind of Creative Commons licence (cf. Eclipse Phase), but I’m not an expert and can’t be sure. The idea, however, is interesting and I heartily support experiments like this. The author also describes his views on DRM, which I can agree with—hell, the PDF isn’t even watermarked. I can’t really find much to criticize in the price tag, either.

So, is it a good game? Perhaps. I must confess that I am somewhat jaded towards the whole genre of occult conspiracies. In a post-Foucault’s Pendulum and Illuminatus! world, it’s a difficult one to work in (cf. the execrable Da Vinci Code), and if it takes itself too seriously, it easily becomes a parody of itself. If done well, though, like in Unknown Armies or Delta Green, it can be something sublime. Enter the Shadowside is right there on the edge, saved mostly by its refusal to delve too deeply into the setting. The system looks functional, if a bit clunky. SCaV3NG3R is genuinely interesting organization.

Full disclosure: I was offered and accepted a free review copy from the designer.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
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