[Games Anatomy] A Red and Pleasant Land
At the time of release, the buzz about Red and Pleasant Land was that it would completely revolutionise the way we played Dungeons and Dragons and totally blow all our minds with its sheer inspirational quality. This is of course hype, which is short for hyperbole and also for things people say about products in order to make you buy them. Since I own and actually quite like Vornheim and am interested in everything Red and Pleasant Land is all about, I bought the thing, read through it, wrote several thousand words about it and then promptly failed to do anything with it for months. Now that it’s won an Ennie or three it’s probably time to bring those words out and give them an airing. The goal here is, of course, to derail the hype train and rummage the wreckage for evidential scraps.
If you squint, you can identify how Zak has mashed up his source material, and maybe derive some insight into a creative process that’s sadly not discussed in explicit detail. Think about Alice in Wonderland. Identify a couple of incidents. Break them down into what actually happens and build them up into gameable D&D stuff (for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess imprint, of which more later).
The superficial features of Wonderland are there. Cheshire Cat? Check. Queen of Hearts? Check. Chessboard landscape? Check. The structure of Wonderland is there. Arbitrary and pointless behaviour/advice/conventions? Check. Surreality achieved through distortions of time, distance and relationships between objects? Check. A disconnection with the outside world, to which we can return when the pretence of structure collapses entirely. Checkity check check.
Wonderland is reduced to its elements, the things that make it distinct from stock Eurofantasy, and those elements are reassembled into something which is more open to player intervention, more blood-all-over-the-place and heavy metal in its aesthetics, and then that bloody steak is extended/muddled/tainted (delete as applicable) with the baked potato of Transylvanian vampire goings-on and the crunchy but barely there side salad of namedropped Arthuriana.
Anyway. The book. I bought the PDF so you’ll be spared any of the tedious business about covers, binding and paper quality and we can get straight into tasty, nourishing content. It opens with the DM section, which seems logical enough for a campaign/setting/supplement sort of thing, and offers…
A map of Voivodja, already on square paper for your gaming convenience, not particularly attractive but functional. Random encounter table sits neatly off to one side, colour-coded and laid out so you roll a different kind of die depending on what kind of terrain you’re in and cross-reference to one table. No duplication, keeps everything tied to a thematically appropriate set of grobblies. Some same-old stuff like trolls, wolves, giant bats, some Wonderlandy stuff like mome raths, and yes, there is a chance to fight a Jabberwock.
Flavour text about Voivodja, woven in and out of the gameables with varying success. It’s OK. It’s a little breathless, but it does the job of making me mildly curious and it’s never long enough for the style to grate as hard as the usual selfindulgent RPG tripe. Reads a bit like China Mieville (no wonder he likes it) and features the occasional wrench out of the purple prose and back into gamerese banality as Zak’s inherent ironic distance makes itself apparent.
Regular permission from the author to use it in the way that you see fit, instruction to avoid stock Eurofantasy tedium,
encouragement to use the Quantum Ogre because this isn’t Discworld II [redacted: see comments]. Sad that he feels we need to be told, sad that some people probably do.
Surprisingly few random tables. A couple of concepts, like the three-dimensional co-ordinates in Voivodjese terminology, which is nice flavour but which you’d have to train yourself and your group into parsing (and Zak essentially admits that making up some imitation-Carrol nonsense is what you should be doing anyway), feel like a look-up table there on the page would be called for.
I know the setting has to be introduced, but I thought Zak’s big thing was that setting should be apparent from things like random tables and map keys and play aids, and that is how we should be told about your world. A foolish consistency is of course the hobgoblin of small minds, and this is more game-focused than the first, invariably fluff chapters in yr. average RPG would be, but I feel like he’s off form with some of this. It’s still mercifully short, and a lot more useful than making me wade through a ten page short story and a forty-page gazetteer before I get to the rules.
The gameables that do exist are bullet-point lists of how things like duelling, time travel and croquet work in Voivodja, as well as notes on major plot points that could/should happen and ways to find Voivodjan shit in the real world. I’m not entirely sure what Red and Pleasant Land wants to be at this stage, since this feels like bowling underarm, like it’s meant to be for new or inexperienced folks who don’t think of things like this themselves… but then, it’s a LotFP book and what are the odds you’ll have heard of it if you’re not already into the D&Ds? Anyway, duels and croquet are both decent, but my favourite of these sections is Behaviour of Creatures in Voivodja. Basically, people in Voivodja behave like idiot Transylvanian gamers having an Interwebs elbow-fight, which at least means the roleplaying shouldn’t be remotely challenging, arf arf…
Next up: custom class, the Alice. Short version: it’s a LotFP Specialist with marginally worse HD/saves/skills, a scaling table to roll on every hour of in-game time to make the plot go forward, and a d100 table to roll on every time you level up, giving bonuses to odd stuff, the bonuses being derived from Wonderland (as you might expect). A slightly bumbling protagonist who’s been dunked into a world they don’t fully understand, but greet with determination to make the best of things. Like the Carcosa Sorcerer, it’s a class that represents its surroundings (and let the comparison stop there, please).
Presents the prospects of an all-Alice party, a lone Alice being escorted by more seasoned adventurers, or potentially applying the modifiers/bonuses to the Alice to another class for different formats of adventure (I immediately think of the Tim Burton film – Alice/Fighter, presumably – or maybe something a bit Simon-the-Sorcerer-ish with Alice/Magic User). It also raises a chord with other fish out of water protagonists – it could very easily be the Lyra or the Bilbo if you wanted to redraw the d100 table to reflect another literary vision.
All this could be managed without making up a new class (adding the d100 table to other classes would do), but it’s harmless, a bit inspiring, and you can just gleefully skip over the chapter if you’re one of those twonks who won’t accept anything that wasn’t squeezed out by Gygax himself.
People and Beasts are next.
Firstly: Elizabeth Bathyscape is the sort of first-edition WFRP pun name that’s only funny once. The only way I would touch that with a barge pole is to fence her about with all of her elaborate aliases and then have her real name be a) ridiculous and b) her secret weakness or something. Mr. S. says the head vampires are to be played as puzzle monsters rather than giant pools of hit points, after all.
Secondly: the efforts to make this both a LotFP book and a system-neutral inspiration manual might well clash in this section, since there’s a callout about the inconsistency of Da Roolz at higher levels and the need to adopt their spirit rather than the details. We’ll see how that turns out.
Thirdly: alignment seems to have fucked off, to be replaced by allegiance to one of four factions. I like this sort of thing, but I can see how it might be seen as a betrayal of core principles by people who think that alignment is there to govern who may turn whom and by what means, or that they need to categorise their character according to a top-down framework.
Ordinary Animals get a single column and a generic statline corresponding to what size your character’s been shrunk down to, which seems fair enough and in keeping with the source material. Other creatures are often directly Alice-derived with a “this is how they interact with D&D adventurers” twist, or are chessboard-based factional monsters like the White Bishop – a vampire cleric that has a recurring turns-into-toxic-white-slime motif. The Queens and Kings get a two-page spread, including a list of goals, means, and characteristics for adventure, which is… actually a lot more helpful than the “here’s a lengthy description of stuff that’s apparent from the rules” flavour text.
As is usual for LotFP products and for visions derived from Realms of Chaos, there is a HUGE set of rules for summoning randomly-generated eldritch abominations, chiefly composed of endless random tables on which you’re advised to pre-generate something horrible in advance (always stay one summon ahead). It feels impractical, burdensome, and at odds with Zak’s usual insistence upon flow and ease of reference, but it does at least ensure a suitably jumbled-up horror. I feel that a trick has been missed here; if you’re going to borrow the four-factions-of-demon thing from Warhammer, as is done here, then I think having a sort of semi-consistent demonic footsoldier for each (a kind of panic-button summoning, in essence) wouldn’t kill anyone.
Also, having had a go at poor Elizabeth, must admit: I’m actually laughing at some of the jokes in this section. The Insufferable and Crashing Boars raised a chuckle in particular, modelled as I suspect they are on typical internet commentators. It’s nothing overly sophisticated, this, but it’ll get a snort out of most tabletop dwellers and it adds a touch of character to the random encounter tables. Random encounters are not usually a part of my game: I can see why D&D has them but I find them to be timewasting. I’m disinclined to make my players fight a bear just because they’re travelling and something dangerous is ‘supposed to happen’, or because I want to wear down their resources to prolong the crawl experience. HOWEVER: the prospect of a herd of bickering pigs all insistent on telling you the most interesting thing that happened to them last week is entertaining enough (the first time) to make me consider it. It could do with a Pig Anecdote table, though: like the summoned horrors, these little detailed fiddly parts are the sort which often cause games to hang and I think tables for those are more useful than “what’s the monster in this square then?”, which is a much easier decision to make on the spur of the moment.
Section ends on rules for inconveniently vampirised PCs and a suitably pedantic ritual of reversal.
Two dungeons: the castles of the Red Queen and King.
The maps are the first thing I’ve actually disliked. They’re not Zak’s worst ever, though: at least this time he’s actually drawing rooms rather than making a collage of things that are sort of like the thing that’s there. That concept-mapping stuff is doubtless brilliant if you’re an art student but I’m a visual illiterate and often I just want to know if the cheesery is upstairs or downstairs from the throne room and roughly how many rounds it’ll take to get from one to the other.
The two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional spaces in a style that’s actually useful for dungeoneering navigation isn’t easy. Mapping in Voivodja – where, in one case, there’s a right-angle straight up as gravity begins to misbehave dramatically for a goodly third of the castle’s internal architecture – is supposed to be a fool’s errand anyway. I think Zak’s Escher efforts are a fine demonstration of that principle, but they are also dense, crowded, and not easy on the eye. The example I’ve given is the most conventional of them.
Zak’s art is, I reckon, supposed to confront and unsettle. That’s fine in a gallery exhibit, but ease and flow and visual comfort are slightly more important in something that’s meant to illustrate what something looks like or how a space fits together. Vague depictions, jagged handwriting, cramped layout and a lack of soothing white space may be economic use of the page and may suit the author’s artistic priorities, but they make the book and especially the dungeon maps awkward to work with at a glance, and I want to look at a map and immediately tell where things are, not have to squint my way through intense visual clutter. Obviously, I don’t expect everything that works for Zak to work for me, especially in a volume which feels more and more like a section of his campaign notes, typed up and illustrated and shuffled into something to use or inspire, but it is something which might affect the usability of the work.
Anyway, dungeons. Both are written up without the tedious block of prose – just bullet points indicating what’s actually important, and a general passage at the beginning to set up what kind of castle they are, what you might reasonably expect to find on an ad-hoc basis. So far, so not TSR, so good.
(Although, one more gripe… if I read one more passage about how the furnishings are worth twice their weight in gold… It’s just maddeningly unhelpful if we don’t know how much they weigh. Perhaps that’s the point, but I would just like to look at something and see how many glods it’s worth and how heavy it is, not have to draw upon a wealth of pre-existing thoughts that I don’t have about tapestries and valuation. It’s another of those moments where there should be a quick answer to something and instead there’s a chance for the DM’s brain to hang while thinking about minutiae.)
The Red Queen one – Cachtice – is mostly of note for its constantly reshuffling/extending/collapsing architecture, its gravitational fuckery, and the denizens treading out their rather frustrated little lives as though it’s all perfectly normal. Gravity becomes a creativity/solution toy for some of the more conventionally dungeon-ish environments further up/across (much like shrinking or growing is necessary for Alice to move around the original Wonderland). The upper tiers are also notable for the plethora of impaled virgins in increasingly elaborate dioramas.
Poenari, the Red King’s palace, is more conventionally dungeon-ish and more Dracula-ish. As our author notes, it could be played as a straight-up, albeit frustrating, dungeon crawl, with additional funny-voices-and-intrigue roleplaying introduced via the intrigues of the Red Brides. Evil vampire duplicates of the PCs, three NPCs with mutually contradictory agendas and reasons to inveigle adventurers, objects which somehow realign the texture of a final encounter… this is a bit more conventional, in fact a lot of these things are things an early-career DM would in all likelihood think of by themselves. The imaginative bit is that the outwardly normal-looking near-deserted castle (full of little torture chamber vignettes, some of which have knock-on effects on others) unfolds into a sort of disconnected internal architecture, built around a single puzzle room, which is where all the interesting shit is.
Said interesting shit is laid out on another Zak map, distinct from that of the conventional castle, which, credit where it’s due, is easier to make sense out of than the last one. This may be because he’s not trying to cram everything onto one page, and instead he’s accurately representing the spatial relationships and making something that’s useful for a DM who’s not him. Likewise, the illustration and the verbal ‘if you’re having trouble with this’ notes for the inside-out puzzle room are actually helpful, in a belt-and-braces kind of way that supports different kinds of engagement with something tricky. The notes on the golem room cover a range of things that players are likely to try and do, or do by accident, in a room where there are things mimicking and duplicating their actions, and this can be played for advantage or disadvantage by canny players, and there’s potentially a risk of being unfair or inconsistent as a referee, and it’s all staked out pretty clearly. This whole dungeon feels less… showy… than the Red Queen’s one – this is the dungeon where Zak tries to help us out rather than blow our minds, and where he seems to have thought about where people are likely to brainfreeze and provide resources for that.
If you’re now thinking that the dungeon with the most interesting architecture could stand to be the one where there’s less other nonsense going on to detract from that, while the dungeon with the most interesting social dynamics should be the one where those dynamics aren’t obscured by the practicalities of getting around, congratulations, you think like me. As it stands, one of the dungeons feels comparatively overdone compared to the other, as though more effort has been made to render it unconventional.
After that there’s a clutch of sample locations – two-page maps ranging from the adequate to the inconvenient (the Garden location is either supposed to be a series of free-floating objects in space or it’s one of those conceptual-space maps where only the important stuff is shown, and the Interior one is basically Zak’s Escher fanart with some notes stuck on it).
Some decent house rules for nobility, duelling and military command (which, correct me if I’m wrong, appear in the Original Game but not in LotFP, and which are actually quite sensible and player-focused rather than ghastly wargamerese); one new spell; and a clutch of tables and resources, the character of which will be familiar to anyone who knows jack-all about Vornheim, the Porn blog, or dropping dice on a Kindle and weeping.
Sample tables include origin stories for native Voivodjans (similar to D&D 5’s backgrounds); Wonderland oddities of the [Verb] Me variety; arbitrary taxes, background events, and idiotic conversation starters. Some of the brainfart opportunities from earlier are filled in, although I still think it’s better design to have things near the things that need them (like a dedicated chart for the Pig Anecdotes and a look-up table for the terminology used in mapping). There are also player handouts – a copy of the bullshit chess puzzle from the Red King dungeon and a fragmentary, defiled copy of the map. And that’s yer lot. What of it?
Well, it’s not bad. It’s an above-average setting book, and I suppose it does do for LotFP what Slaves to Darkness does for WFRP, so mission accomplished Zak, well done. (I don’t, however, think that Realms of Chaos is actually the best RPG book ever, but that’s an argument for another time.) If LotFP had been my first RPG and this had been my first setting book I’d a) be deeply fucked up and b) feel like I’d had a decent enough grounding in how these things are meant to work. I could go on and make up my own campaigns and adventures having got a feel for how the game is played.
(For anyone who’s counting, I’m interested in the find-a-croquet-hoop-in-some-horrible-far-flung-place hook, the vampires-come-through-mirrors-and-abduct-fresh-blood-for-their-grand-guignol-Wonderland hook and the Red King’s dungeon run as-is, ’cause I have one player who loves anything remotely to do with Alice and another who’s goth as fuck and crazy for the American McGee games: both of them will eat this stuff up wholesale.)
It does a more clear and more engaging job of ‘vampire-themed RPG with politics and weirdness’ than anything White Wolf have spewed up in the last ten years and, despite some overlap in territory, it’s not the blatant reskinning of Ravenloft that I’m sure someone out there was expecting. It’s definitely… not bad.
It’s also not a life-changing revelation. I don’t feel like a complete idiot for having bought it – a few bits have inspired me, a few rooms in the dungeons have raised a curious eyebrow, a few jokes have made me titter. BUT I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. While there are specific things in here of which I might not have thought, I don’t feel that any of it has lifted the scales from my eyes. I keep harping on about how it feels like a more entry-level product than it is and maybe that’s the answer, maybe it’s pitched at people who have trouble breaking out of the usual D&D experience rather than people who have trouble breaking into it.
In sum: valuable for the inexperienced, if any of them are coming direct to LotFP-land, though how that might happen I’ve no idea. Unnecessary for anyone with significant DM experience, though worth a look. Possibly best read as a demonstration of how you can break down and rebuild inspirations to make a setting: try to pick apart the process rather than blithely use the product.