Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of Veins Of The Earth

Patrick Stewart's Veins of the Earth is now available, after years of bated breath you can purchase the PDF here or, if like myself you prefer physical items, from the LotFP store.

I devoured the PDF version yesterday, unable to patiently wait for hardcover. Here are some of my initial impressions of the content. I may end up appending a review of the physical copy to this once it arrives from Finland.

This work is huge (300+ pages) and ambitious. It was worth the wait, and here are some of my thoughts:

After a brief introduction, the book jumps straight into a bestiary containing fifty-one underworld adversaries. Any reader familiar with Patrick/Scrap Princess’ previous work Fire On The Velvet Horizon (my lulu-replacing hardcover just arrived and it’s quite fetching) will know that monsters written/illustrated by this team are not your usual spear-fodder. They are though-provoking, captivating, and occasionally campaign inspiring. The largest difference here is probably the presentation. Unlike FotVH, Stat Blocks have been provided (largely linqua franca, and I do enjoy the AC notation of “Plate” or “Chain and Shield” rather than attempting to accommodate both the descending/ascending crowd). Another interesting item is a line for each creature noting it’s methods of seeing, which is very handy to have on hand given the light-based innovations to initiative presented later in the book. An additional welcome inclusion is sensory descriptions of most monsters beyond the visual. Sounds and Smells are frequently described in evocative detail, vitally important for situations where the visible spectrum may be limited or unavailable, but also great for incorporating organic traces and warnings for random encounters in the deep and establishing a more sensuous/less-visual descriptive corpus.

There are some very intriguing entries here, and the choice to begin the book with a bestiary is sound. This section very quickly imparts the reader with a sense that the world that contains these creatures is vastly different than the surface. Motivations, methods of predation/ecology, and physiology are all impacted by the deep and this stays in the forefront throughout VEINS. These creatures really help establish the alien expectations of the setting much more swiftly than attempting to telegraph the otherness of the underworld via several paragraphs of information. As for some examples: We have comic-relief Cambrimen, humanoid Olm, and the tragically noble Trilobite Knights. As we’ve seen previously in FotVH, there are some incredible campaign-centerpiece foes:  challenging ones that an intrepid Vein Master would have no difficulty basing an entire campaign around. I’m looking at you AntiPheonix and Civilopede, but I also adore the due-diligence geo-political ramification brainfood the Castillian Caddis Larvae description includes.

An artist gave Caddis Larva gold and precious gems to construct their cases:

This one is the size of a bus and uses gold and the steel of magic weapons.

Following the bestiary, there is another setting-sending chapter on some civilizations/cultures one could encounter in the VEINS. There are thankfully no drow and therefore no dreary Drizzt surrogates to clog your VEINS. Gone is the unfortunate evil matriarchy and arachnid worship. More than a stand-in, the Ælf-Adal could still be used by the lazy and uncreative to fulfill the role, but their motivations and origins are far more interesting. There’s an awesome flowchart to help illustrate the mindset of the Dvargir (deeper dwarfs), and the dErO receive a positively pitch-perfect, Shaver-riffic treatment in their schizophrenic section.

Again, the initial chapters work well to help engross the reader in some of the stark differences that adventures in the VEINS will entail. This is a world where cannibalism is a matter of course, light is money, and money is time.

Speaking of Light, the next chapter addresses its importance (both mechanically and flavorfully) in detail. We are given some advice on how to handle the different modes of vision in traditional fantasy games (spoiler alert: light still generally wins), a sound new way of handling initiative underground based on light source, some achingly prepossessing sample lanterns and the first appearance of an exciting new mechanical procedure that sees significant use in VEINS. For lack of a better name, I’m dubbing it the All Ability Score Check.

This first appears in the section “When Lost In The Dark” (love the implication, not if, but when). The basic gist is a PC is chosen as an actor or guide and a d20 is rolled and compared to each of their Ability Scores/Statistics in sequence, with the specific consequences tied to the failure of a specific stat. This has some pretty interesting and broad applications as a mechanic, and I like it much better than a standard Skill-Check, because it incorporates interesting degrees of failure. Here’s an example of how this works (not from the book, just something I whipped up for illustrative purposes).

Table: Swimming a Sump with a Light Source (VEINS p. 226)
Stat Fail
Constitution All further fails cumulative
Strength Dropped Gear. Lose Half Equipment
Dexterity A limb is caught, will take margin of failure rounds to free.
Intelligence Unanticipated current. Pushed further and faster than expected (d6 x margin of failure feet)
Wisdom Disoriented in an Air Pocket. Lost, don’t know how to get back.
Charisma Group Separated. Even upstream, Odd downstream. Hope both groups have light.
Typically, the first failure on the list (except for the cumulative Constitution failure) interrupts the sequence of resolution.

This procedure is wonderful, and is used throughout for things like exploration and climbing that have a degree of danger and physicality instead of just a single skill check. They are dangerous, and enforce difficult choices and player’s carefully planning and thinking very hard about their strengths and weaknesses before deciding on a course of action or the actor/guide who will lead them through a challenge. This is the first I’ve seen it used (please let me know if this shows up elsewhere), but it’s really quite lovely.

In the next section is a custom VEINS Character Sheet that places some of the key perils of subterranean peregrination where it should be: front and center. Encumbrance is always an easily hand-waved subsystem, but here we find another add-on to the already easy to adjudicate LotFP standard system. On the VEINS sheet, each Stat (save Charisma) can grant a bonus item or so that you can carry comfortably. The sheet itself will likely soon be available on the LotFP website, so I’m refraining from reproducing it here, but suffice to say it really puts the appropriate attention on how Encumbrance interacts with the different movement modes and allows for very quick “eye-ball checks” of what a character would have on them NOW. UPDATE: VEINS Character Sheet. Climbing rules also receive prominent placement (prognosticating the frequency at which they will likely be invoked) and the addition of the Lamp section enforces the importance of Light. The autopsy of the character sheet segues nicely into the sections on Exploration and Climbing/Falling.

Some real procedural meat follows in the section on Generating the VEINS. Cavern and cave-mapping in traditional games has always been lacking the crucial three-dimensional aspect of cave exploration and the mapping methods outlined here attempt to address this in a novel, abstract way. I’ve yet to actually kick the tires, but it seems simple and sound enough with a bit of practice. A great boon is the Example provided in the Appendix of the book, which takes the reader step-by-step through the procedures and was very helpful for wrapping my brain around some of the more extreme cartographic paradigm shifts (like quadrants representing above/below). The map notation methods used seems serviceable, but the tables included here are incredible. There is a d50 “mix and match/read-across” table of Cave Shape/Kinds of Stone, a fantastic Smells & Sounds table (I still need to get around to posting about my Yoon-Suin smells procedures) and a d100 Encounter table full of session saving inspiration.

But the best is really saved for last here, with 100 individual cave descriptions, all replete with Patrick’s evocative style. They sometime assault the mind’s eye and hurt the brain but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I found myself re-reading several and concentrating on dredging up whispy memories of a wonder-filled and simultaneously terrifying visit to Carlsbad Caverns when I was very young. I vividly recall a point in the tour when they turned out all the lights and left us silent in the utter dark for a few moments (the Appendix section on the different kinds of Darkness resurrected this memory, and there are some interesting 4th wall breaking ideas here).

The next chapter contains interesting items, treasures and new “Speleo Spells” tailored for a subterranean campaign. I envy Patick’s ability to write about artwork in a stimulating way within the “One Hundred Treasures of The Civilopede” section.

The final proper chapter deals with the gnawing, persistent Hunger and looming madness that await explorers of the VEINS. The procedures outlined for dealing with Rations are a welcome departure from the meticulous tick-mark record keeping and long shopping-sprees that come from tracking consumables to the meal. Marching a provision-laden mule through the intensely anti-navigable VEINS is foolhardy, and would probably just serve as a supper invitation for Spotlight Dogs. Instead we’re presented with a simple three-stage minimal system that oozes gravity. You will be hungry, cannibalization becomes mechanically attractive (informing play), and starvation is a very real danger. It once more stresses that the act of exploring the VEINS necessitates travelling light and is dangerous to the body (in more ways than one). The remainder of the chapter (save a small section on Hypothermia) deals with the gifts the VEINS can bestow upon said body (in the form of mutations/adaptations) and damage to mental state. The treatment of cave madness within VEINS is excellently chilling.

Now a word about the art. This book is absolutely brimming with illustrations and paintings by Scrap Princess. The style will be familiar to any readers who are familiar with the Deep Carbon Observatory, or FotVH. It is fluid, frenetic, and frequent, with some extremely lovely colored frontspiece paintings sprinkled between chapters. Every. Monster. Is. Illustrated. Some more than once, and even though your sensibilities may veer more toward the traditional when it comes to more typically prolix RPG artwork, this style marries quite well with the text in my option. Things in the VEINS are rarely static, and rarely seen with any detail, the impressions conveyed by the illustrations and paintings work well to convey the sometimes-unsettling desperation that pervades this extensive ecosystem. I cannot wait to see some of these pieces within their proper context within a physical book, because artwork of this frequency has another very underrated and added benefit: It is bookmarks.

I can often navigate an RPG book to locate a specific table or rule/procedure by its proximity/placement to artwork. Physical bookmarks quickly become redundant or fall out and dogearing makes me sad. Instead, I can zip directly to the information I need with a simple scan and the thumb/forefinger rapid page-flip, stopping when I see art that I know to be near the object of my intent. I really believe that the sheer amount of distinctive artwork within VEINS will really facilitate the location of information for reference.

I’ll admit that the style itself may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it’s a welcome change from the recycled Sidney Sime/Public Domain chestnuts or artists who only seem to ape Elmore or clumsily imitate Franzetta. I do tend to prefer art that springboards the imagination, to art that seems shoved in for the sake of breaking up text or contaminates the mind’s eye with a specific gloss or vocabulary. Scraps’ art evokes more than dictates, it forces the reader to fill in blanks, which is what a good Vein Master should probably be practicing at every opportunity.

It’s a very good read, even on screen (which is something I seldom have any desire to do).  The layout is lovely.  The PDF proved to be well-crafted, bookmarked, and has a robust index. If you are interested in running games that extend below the surface, I’d put this on a must-have list for the sheer amount of inspiration and research it condenses alone. Your player’s will not crawl out the same way the marched in.