Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 17 September 2010

White Box Fever I.II

New Weird World is the second item to be included in Weird Fantasy Role-Playing boxed set from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and also made available separately. This is something of departure for the designer, James Raggi IV, as it is not adventure, but a sandbox setting, a region that can be freely explored or roamed by a party of adventurers. Not a departure in the sense that it is without a plot, because most of Raggi’s scenarios are location based and without plot, but rather a departure in that the author cannot bring his customary attention to detail to every element of the region described in New Weird World.

Inspired by Raggi’s adopted home in Finland and his reading about the search for the Northwest Passage, the setting for New Weird World is the frozen North. These are not the only inspirations for this setting. The more obvious ones being H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but there are possible nods to two classic modules for First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as well, S2, White Plume Mountain and S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Much like Tower of the Stargazer, the other adventure included in the Weird Fantasy Role-Playing boxed set, New Weird World is designed for use by someone new to running a wilderness campaign, but where Tower of the Stargazer is written for first level characters, New Weird World is written for more experienced characters of fourth to seventh levels.

Where another adventure from Lamentations of the Flame Princess would come in a simple card cover, the cover for New Weird World folds out to show a full colour map of Raggi’s sandbox. The region comprises almost three million square miles of territory, primarily marked by climate. Also marked on the map are the forty or so locations described in the adventure’s twenty-four page booklet. The maps for two of these locations are given on the inside of the cover, a truly “Great Shipwreck” and a “Pirate Treasure Cove.” Included in the booklet are plain, unmarked copies of the maps for the referee to use and the players to mark up as they explore.

If Raggi cannot bring his customary attention to detail to the region as a whole, he can at least apply to aspects of the setting. Primarily these are its weather, its exploration, and its random encounters, the latter both befitting New Weird World’s clime and the darker, more sinister feel of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Thus you have encounters as mundane as a herd of caribou and arctic wolves, but also strange encounters with a crazed whale, tribespeople with a severe hatred of demihumans, and a Living Aurora – surely a Colour Out of Space by any other shade? Raggi never lets up in his weirdness, but where he can carry this off effectively in the space of a full adventure where he has room to develop his ideas, here all too often, he can only just present a thumbnail snapshot and no more. Part of this is intentional, the author wanting the referee to explain and expand upon these phenomena himself, but almost as soon as the referee starts thinking about one, then he is looking at the next one on the page. Nor does it help that the adventure lacks advice on developing the author’s ideas, especially after the luxury of the author’s thoughts in Tower of the Stargazer.

Two locations are expanded in detail, each running to roughly three pages in length. They serve up a slice of the author’s trademark oddness, but given their isolated location, it is doubtful that the players will ever get out that far. At least not without some kind of hook, and that is main problem with New Weird World. The lack of hooks, of an obvious starting point, and even a table of rumours leaves a lot of work to do for an experienced referee, let alone a neophyte one. The inclusion of a starting point would also provide a place of refuge for the characters away from strangeness of the region.

In the hands of an experienced referee, New Weird World will provide the basis of a dark and curious campaign. It is not written to that end though, and is just a little too arch for the new referee. Ultimately, the issue is not weirdness of New Weird World – that is its point, after all, but its size. The region is too big for the new referee, too big for Raggi to detail beyond its weirder features, and too big for the player characters to explore fully. A smaller area would have allowed the author to present some of the ideas here to the level of detail we have seen elsewhere, while leaving room for the referee to add details himself.

As the first attempt to create a wilderness adventure, New Weird World is an interesting read, full of ideas ready to be expanded upon. Yet it is too big and ambitious to pull off successfully, and the author will need to rethink his scale for his next attempt.