Friday, 23 January 2015

A Red & Pleasant Land - Impressions and Stuff

I've finished absorbing +Zak Smith's latest work, A Red & Pleasant Land; which for those of you not in the know, is a pseudo-campaign setting for use in D&D, retro-clones, and other fantasy-minded RPGs; which is heavily based off of Lewis Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and it's sequel Through the Looking Glass; mixed with Eastern European vampire folklore (think Vlad Tepes and Elizabeth Báthory).

There's plenty of reviews out there already that praise this piece of work and one would say I'm fashionably late to the croquet game; regardless, I'll just give my general impressions and note the parts I particularly enjoyed:

I had way too much time on my hands that day...
First off, the book itself is a gem of a gamebook: approximately digest size, covered red fabric, and printed in gold-leaf, it fits nearly perfectly next to our copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Coincidence? Nah...
I'll say now that I'm a big fan of smaller books height-wise for their portability and whatnot; also, I think all hardback books should come with a cloth bookmark; they're too damn useful! What are RPG books mostly used for? REFERENCING; a built-in bookmark doesn't loose your page like a slip of paper can!

Anyway, the layout is top-notch, printed on slightly-textured cream pages that provide excellent contrast to the bold art. The editing is tight with few errors, the largest of which is a printing goof that left us without the last two pages of the book: a map fragment handout and a larger version of a chess puzzle, neither of which is a huge loss; the puzzle already exists a couple times in the book albeit smaller. PDF version is complete and LotFP's website has the missing pages [here].

In the introduction and first chapter, our author gives us the whys-and-why-nots, the who-cares, and the whats about the wonderland of Voivodja (a.k.a the Place of Unreason) and some useful advice for GM's; I particularly like his brief dissertation on both the differences and similarities of 'whimsical' and 'creepy', as I think that both are important for GM's to consider when they set the tone of any game using AR&PL, or any RPG with similar themes.

On a related note, he cites several works to inspire mood and help set the theme beyond the source material (the Missus' owns a copy of Alice by Jan Svankmajer, which I find hypnotically bizarre). One could easily suggest the soundtracks of American McGee's Alice and Alice: Madness Returns for a creepy audio vibe or the Danny Elfman's Alice in Wonderland for something a bit more whimsical. But if I were to suggest a single audio inspiration, it'd have to be the surreal Alice in Wonderland soundscape by Randy Greif: part narration, part weird avant garde project.

The above sampling is only thirteen and a half minutes of a six-hour-long work that spans five albums. To a weird guy like me, this is an excellent audio paring to the strangeness of AR&PL. If you happen across a copy, it makes for good inspiration. Spice in nearly any classic Dracula soundtrack (by Wojciech Kilar, John Williams, Philip Glass, etc.) and you're set.

Anyway, back to my impressions.

The four pages that comprise Chapter II introduce the 'Alice' as a optional character class (for classic D&D rule-sets and the various incarnations derived there-from, though people have made 'Alices' for recent editions like 5e. Just Google it). The Alice has an interesting subset of random abilities/powers that are in a way tied to a meta-plot: the concept here is that the protagonist, despite getting into situations perhaps over their head, has the storyline occasionally conform beneficially to them.

In contrast to the previous chapter's length, Beasts & Peoples takes up a good chunk of the book. Zak has comprised a truly unique bestiary of individuals inspired from all corners of Caroll's works but seen through looking glass darkly. As I've said before, I really dig Zak's art-style and the books wouldn't be a half as evocative if his drawings weren't there to visually support his words. I like how GM's are given four factions to weave intrigue with (if you have factions of vampires, there has to be intrigue), along with a variety of unaligned creatures. 

A pair of Pale Rooks
Likewise the rank and file of the major houses' armies are arranged by four suits and ten ranks for the Card faction, and by eight ranks of pawns below the bishops, knights, and rooks of the three Chess factions. Because all the stats of the lowly orders scale with rank, it's relatively easy to randomly generate basic NPCs on the fly; as it should be. There's also a listing of vampire traits common to all or just to particular factions, ensuring that not all the vampires in the Place of Unreason have the same strengths and weaknesses. It's a tough choice, but I'm going to go with the rooks (all three varieties) as my favourite creatures; again it'd be a close call.

I was compelled to create my own unusual creature from a mix of inspirations: Animated Objects, Axe beaks, Borogroves (obviously), Flamingos used as croquet mallets, the one-legged version Groth-Golka (as depicted on yog-blogsoth), and the staggering variety of Poleweapons.


These miserable, shabby-looking creatures appear as extremely thin, flightless birds standing upon a single leg whose bodies are surrounded by ruffled masses of feathers. The height of borogroves vary as much as the configuration of their heads and beaks, making them superficially resemble various types of medium-sized mêlée weapons or polearms. By gripping fast to any stable perch or surface with their single powerful talon, these creatures swing their hard beaks viciously at any perceived threats.  
HD 4 HP 16 Speed flutter-hop 1/2 as human,  
Armor as chain+shield Intelligence animal Reference ... 
  • Beak Strike: +1d8 (varies) to hit for d8hp damage
  • Mimsy: (once/day) as Ray of Enfeeblement cast by a d8 level Magic-User, but the target must also Save versus Paralysis or be overcome with such misery that they can take no action for the remainder of the spell's duration.
  • If killed, the body of a borogrove becomes very rigid after an hour; provided it's relatively straight, it can function as a weapon of similar design.
A pair of Knights fighting with the plucked and prepared carcasses of dead borogroves
  • Borogroves with blunt, hammer-like beaks are highly sought after by croquet aficionados as status symbols that double as mallets; living specimens tend to fetch higher prices than dead ones. Worth d8x1000gp alive or d4x1000gp dead to prospective buyers. 
  • It is rumoured either the fruit or the nut of the Tumtum tree inebriates borogroves to the point of flimsy paralysis upon ingestion; the other kills them outright.

Like Smith's previous published work, Vornheim, AR&PL gives GM's a basic overview of the setting with a few major adventure locations (such as the Card Castle and the Looking Glass Palace), a basic worldmap (which uses clever rational why it conforms so easily to the grid of graph-paper), and a few sample locations but is mostly an open sandbox with all the tools for GM's to add elements on the fly. Many of these tools are several pages of random tables and drop-tables similar in design to those seen in Vornheim, most of which could be used outside of this particular given setting.

I don't think it needs to be said that I really like this book and have little negative to say about it: It's a solid piece of OSR work. If I had the chance, I'd run this thing in a heartbeat; I'm as equally as eager to drown in the bizarre setting as I am to see if all the tools presented function as well as they appear to.

If what I've gone on about seems intriguing, get this. If not in hardback, in PDF.