Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review: The Gardens of Ynn

The Gardens of Ynn is now available in print on demand and in PDF on rpgnow. The PDF is currently only three dollars and an exceptional value. Billing itself as “A delightful horticultural adventure for use in old-school roleplaying games” it consists of about 79 pages broken into five sections. I was pleased to discover upon reading that this is far more than just a single, linear adventure, but instead a very fully-fledged and versatile generator that can easily be used to populate several session worth of content. It is easily compatible with the traditional flavors of D&D and the assorted clones/rulesets with only the minimum of modification/conversation necessary, most of which could easily be done on the fly.

The setting presented here is very adaptable, as Ynn is defined as a “perpendicular world” and serves almost as a separate/discrete plane. This makes it very simple to drop into almost any campaign setting and the novel means of ingress and “hooks” provided within the introduction facilitate this use. Ynn’s history and nature is sufficiently fleshed out without becoming overbearingly precise/specific and it could very easily function as a less typical/more flavorful stand-in or whole-cloth replacement for a variety of some of the more traditional/prosaic extraplanar jaunts (it could just as easily be a unique spin on the mythical Otherworld, a darker and more dangerous Fairyland, or even a pseudo-Elemental plane of Florae) in addition to its specified origins. I tend to enjoy the versatility of the ideas a purchase like this can produce, more than static setting information, but the information here is intriguing and far from boring.

The Introduction sketches a light touch on these origins that is further expanded with additional tasty tidbits throughout the work. I enjoy adventures and settings like this that provide “just enough” to whet the appetite and trickle out more information as the reader continues through the content. Always a welcome change of pace from a massive upfront lore-dump that will either be impossible or tedious to adequately communicate to players anyhow. The meat of this section outlines the procedures for the use of the tables that follow, and it was at this point that it started to become clear to me that this wasn’t intended as just a single adventure, but more akin to a toolbox for spontaneously generating interesting locations, events, and encounters that could serve as the backdrop for a myriad of distinctly different forays and adventures within the Gardens.

These procedures function almost like a point-crawl or hex-crawl but dispense with the needs to define destinations in advance or rigidly map. They are simple, elegant, and most importantly easy to follow “on-the-fly.” They implement or generate more of a flow-chart approach than a rigidly bounded map. This is important because of the mutable nature and chaos inherent within Ynn, and pains are taken to stress that attempting to make definitive maps to meticulously navigate the Gardens is largely futile. The points and links generated through these procedures are somewhat ephemeral, only remaining consistent for a single visit, as no two trips to the Gardens need be, or should be identical.

For the verdant, shifting world of Ynn, attempts to define inflexible geography and distance are unnecessary in most instances and this kind of minutia can only seldom prove fun for players in most situations. This puts the emphasis on the act of exploration within the environment rather than cataloging it. When something is fully mapped and explored it becomes known and familiar. The Gardens of Ynn bristle and laugh at these attempts.

This procedure makes navigation less directional and more of a binary player choice of either “Go Deeper” and “Go Back,” relative to a starting point that is defined by a Location. Less choices to contend with = Faster Play, but one should not mistake this for railroading or agency removal. Destinations are points that are defined by Locations (flavored with Details) and a third dimension of “depth” designed to escalate dangers, treasure, and the out-of-the-ordinary. These are not rolled in advance, creating an opportunity to surprise not just the players, but also the Referee. As specific/notable locations are re-rolled/repeated the “map” can link together and doubles back on itself. Navigation uses the resource of time, taking a turn and the players can always opt to “Go Deeper” from a given Location to discover more Locations that branch from the current one.

This section also covers some additional and welcome information on navigating blindly (perhaps when fleeing The Jabberwock or The Questing Beast), when and how to trigger Events, Camping, and Time Passage and Weather within Ynn. Here you will also find some additional background in the form of the structure, some peculiarities with how certain Magics work in the world, and tantalizing sketches of the inhabitants and primary architects of Ynn before reaching the tables used in the navigation procedure.

There are five key tables that reference the following sections of the book and provide handy page numbers for their entries. The first two are used to generate the points/places mentioned above (Location + Detail). Upon entry, and after exploring “deeper” into the Gardens, one rolls on the Location and Details table in order to generates a new point. These rolls are later modified upward based on “depth” to produce more and more chaotic and unusual results the “deeper” players explore. Although I didn’t see it expressly spelled out, it does seem that each “Location + Detail” generates a defined and singular place, and the same Location with a different Detail rolled later could serve as either a distinct/different point, or as a previously visited location that has undergone changes. Not including the possible influence a few “special/notable” locations that can only be found once per expedition, the combinations of rolls on these tables could probably produce over a thousand distinct “places.” Combining these with rolls on the third, Events table, helps to ensure that even doubling back to revisit a known location can still be interesting.

Rolls on the Events table are triggered by exploration turns (time as a resource that needs to be managed), I particularly enjoy how the die used to roll on this table changes based on how thoroughly the players are interacting with a location, with Events that call to Encounter tables more weighted with more frequency to the lower end of the table. To uncover/spark the interesting entries the high end of the table, exploration (and the larger die roll) are necessary. This is a wonderful way to handle these triggers.

The remaining two tables are Encounters, and I appreciate the decision to divide these into separate Daytime and Nighttime tables.  Encounters with some of the inhabitants outlined in the Bestiary are more logically or vastly more exciting to run nocturnally, and the use of the separate Encounter tables almost seems to give the diurnal Gardens a different “feel” than their night-time counterparts. The Garden by Night seems to have an almost-more supernaturally sinister and stygian impression from being surrounded not just by lush, overgrown vegetation but also the claustrophobic indefinites of darkness. During the day one may have to contend with the unnerving ministrations and keening of the Rose-Maidens, but when the night falls, the meme-prone Myconid clean-up crews roam the Gardens in search of valuable compost. Other decidedly nocturnal encounters like the Hopping Lantern and Candle Golem find their rightful place on the appropriate table, allowing the night to provide a separate setting that creates chance meetings that seem very fun and more appropriate to narrate.

The next three sections (Locations, Details, Bestiary) serve as keys for the preceding tables. The Locations and Details get more elaborate treatment, including evocative descriptions and often additional sub-tables or specialized mechanics to further flesh the location out with more specificity. Detail explanations stir the imagination and leave plenty of room for the Referee to either define or leave mysterious the “why” in most cases. Beneath the bushes, more snippets of lore and background for the Gardens and their inhabitants lurks here. My only minor complaint is that it can be somewhat difficult to find a specific Location or Detail without the use of the handy page numbers provided on the referencing tables, as they are intentionally out of alphabetical order. Perhaps including the table number and the table reference here would assist in findability on a flick through?

The Bestiary is wonderful, and I had high hopes with a description of “Moa-sized Peacocks” piquing my interest earlier in the book. I love Moas and I love Peacocks. Combining the two into some sort of resplendently plumed Jurassic Park Velociraptor is inspired, and there’s more where that came from. Each Bestiary entry provides some description and a simple, compact and eminently compatible stat-block for ease of reference. Even some more-familiar monsters show up, but each is given a slightly Ynnian spin by virtue of appearance or even mechanics. The treatment of mechanics for petrification with The Basilisk is particularly nice, and The Idea of Thorns is magnificent.

The final section is chock full of useful tables that can greatly assist the Referee with set dressing (Unusual Flora, Horticultural Styles, Foraged Food), treasure tables (including the ever-helpful “I Search the Body” and its Garden-specific adjunct “I Search the Flowerbed”), as well as a great Rumor table that can help facilitate non-combat encounters and conversations with some of the less-hostile inhabitants (always convenient to have on hand for those favorable Reaction Rolls!).  I found myself greatly enjoying how the “Dreams and Portents in Ynn” table interrelates and calls-back to the rest of the book’s contents, making it incredibly promising for foreshadowing some of Ynn’s mysteries and lethal dangers to the players. These miscellaneous tables are followed by a new Character Class that helps address character death given the capsular nature of adventures in the Gardens and seems like it would be enjoyable to play in its own right without trickling out too many secrets.

The Gardens of Ynn is rounded out with some brief advice on how one particularly aspect of the Garden (the aforementioned Idea of Thorns) might impact a Referee’s larger campaign setting/world. The author has placed this information online here if you would like to get a taste.

I highly recommend the Gardens of Ynn if you’re looking to expand your campaign toolbox to include a useful resource for some potentially perilous and imaginative “planar” jaunts with a decidedly naturalistic bent. One could easily use it as a convenient stand-in or re-skin for the plane that Druid’s visit on their spiritual sojourns, as “what happens when you die from Nymph voyeurism”, or even something akin to Dwarf-Hell or simply exploit the helpful hooks and plop it in “as-is” if you find yourself at the start of a session with little prepared. The choices made concerning the illustrations and art are fitting, of good frequency, and evocative. The heavy hitters of Rackham, Clarke and Beardsley help to convey and inspire the fanciful/fairy-tale qualities, with some of the beautiful Art Nouveau selections hinting at the more subtly sinister other-worldliness of the Gardens throughout.

It’s discrete and versatile enough to drop into any campaign and could easily serve up an evening (or several) of exciting session.  Gardens of Ynn contains a surprising amount of delightful brainfood and inspiration for the current low PDF price of three dollars.

One interesting thing to consider is its use as an alternate route between far-flung locations within your campaign world. In this fashion it could easily become a distinct campaign feature, frequently visited by the players. Just be careful: What happens in Ynn might not stay in Ynn.

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