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Sunday, 5 July 2015

Beyond the sanguinary red mirror

Beyond the mountains to the east of Mitteleuropa on the other side of the Terrible Goblin Woods lies a dream that has fallen into nightmare, a land of wonders that has been twisted into a wilderness of the weird—Voivodja. Also known as the Place of Unreason and the Land the Gods Refuse To See, it is a country of veiled darkness where two monarchs have grown to war with other. One is the Red King, of the Red House, the other is Heart Queen of the House of Hearts, she is cruel and capricious, he is terrible and tall, and both dream, and their dreams warp the land. Both command vampire armies that have all but wiped out the natives of Voivodja, though pockets of them survive in deep sanctuaries here and there.The Red King and Heart Queen have imposed a chessboard-like grid upon the land, but decisive battles between the two armies are rare and instead they feud through intrigues and plans within plans all played out at a stately pace—when such plans have either monarch’s attention that is…

Into this stalemate come neutral interlopers—the Pale King and the Colourless Queen, as well as the player characters. Perhaps they fell down the wrong tunnel or through a mirror—whether deep in some dungeon or down an alley off the streets of London. In Voivodja mirrors are important, for they enable the vampires to cross from the War Side to Quiet Side—a reflection of our world where the vampires go to hunt for sustenance now that there are so few natives of Voivodja still alive. However they arrive, the adventurers are an unknown, one that either side would want to use or to destroy. Thus the likelihood is that they will become involved in the intrigues of one faction or another, but they had best mind their ‘Ps and Qs’—or at least learn how to play croquet—because otherwise it will be off with their heads! Or worse…

This is the set-up for A Red & Pleasant Land, the multi-Ennie award nominated campaign and setting supplement published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess for its Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. It is thus compatible with the various Old School Renaissance fantasy RPGs and with a little effort could be used with any number of modern fantasy RPGs. Written by Zak S., author of The Vornheim City Guide and controversial advisor for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, it can be used as is, dropped into an isolated spot on the Referee’s campaign map, dipped into for inspiration, or harvested for ideas. Like most of the other releases for Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the campaign is by default humanocentric, so this is not necessarily a land for demihumans. It is though a land to be visited, but should a player character die there, options are given for playing Voivodja natives. Unlike several recent releases for Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, this is not a setting that involves firearms.

Much is made of the culture and mores of Voivodja and rightly so, for A Red & Pleasant Land is no simple dungeon, but a complex of intrigues and chicanery that the player characters will need to navigate. Learning the manners of the courts of the Red King and Heart Queen, from croquet and correct trial etiquette to what not to eat at banquets—almost everything and the dangers of attending a wedding in the Land of Unreason. Some of this applies to the animals of Voivodja too as many of them can talk and this being a ‘Wonderland’, the player characters can shrink down to their size and talk to them (and of course grow back up again). An extensive bestiary details the notable inhabitants of Voivodja as well as their cohorts and servants along with the animals and monsters, including the stranger than strange Pseudoturtle and the Jabberwock. In the case of the inhabitants, the Referee will need to develop further their desires and motivations, but A Red & Pleasant Land is not short of the means to do that. Lastly, both the courts of the Heart Queen and the Red King—Cachtice, the Card Castle for the Heart Queen, Poenari, the Looking Glass Palace for the Red king—are mapped out in detail in a very singular style that captures some of the craziness of both locations.

There is just the one new Class given in A Red & Pleasant Land—the Alice (or Alistair if the character is male), which can be best described as a slightly less capable Thief or Rogue, but with a pair of interesting twists. The first is the Exasperation table which an Alice’s player can roll on when he has got frustrated and in return will receive some form of aid, such as someone falling down or a nearby device or object breaking. The second is that whenever an Alice gains a Level, she gains a random benefit each and every time, like ‘She could be very charming when she needed to be’ (+2 Charisma bonus to attempts to lie), ‘It was so lovely, and—according to the book—it was right there’ (a greatly desired object is nearby), and ‘Alice had seen so many unusual things lately, it had become usual’ (nothing phases Alice who receives a +2 save bonus versus confusion or insanity). Although it is possible for an Alice to receive the same benefit multiple times, what this means is that no two Alices are alike.

Rounding out A Red & Pleasant Land are a set of sample locations, some optional rules, and a lengthy set of tables. The locations come in the form of beautifully done maps of sample places around Voivodja—a forest, a garden, and an interior. The optional rules cover characters of rank—either being born to it or appointed, duelling, and battles large and small. They are simple  and straightforward, and are of use outside of A Red & PLeasant Land as well as in. They can also be used with any Old School Renaissance fantasy RPG. Then there are the tables—and what tables they are! They cover everything from Adventure Hooks, Animals, and Anonymities to Relationships Between NPCs, What’s The Thing They Just Encountered Doing?, and Where Have You Been? (the latter to explain a player’s absence in a previous session). Together these tables are fantastic resource, a panoply of ideas and nudges for the Referee’s imagination that ice the rich cake that is A Red & Pleasant Land.

Physically, A Red & Pleasant Land is a handsome clothbound hardback. Not beautiful, for it is slightly off kilter for that, weird and creepy, and definitely not all that is either proper or moral. Its artwork is suitably macabre rather than bloody whilst the interior maps eschew the chessboard style of most Dungeons & Dragons scenarios to give the locations of A Red Pleasant Land a sprawling haphazard feel. The writing though needs an edit in places, but it is never unreadable.

By far the biggest issue with A Red & Pleasant Land is what the Referee does with it. Not that the supplement is short on ideas or the means to create encounters, scenarios, and plots, but as well organised as it is, there is an an underlying chaos to A Red & Pleasant Land that threatens to overwhelm the Referee. In places this needs a careful attention upon the part of the Referee if he is to get the best of this supplement. Of course some players may not like craziness or the weirdness that pervades the pages of A Red & Pleasant Land, but what may be a bane in some campaigns may be a boon in others.

Dungeons & Dragons has of course visited both vampires and Alice’s adventures before. The former most notably in I6, Ravenloft, the latter in Gary Gygax’s EX1 Dungeonland module and its sequel, EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, but never ever like this… Imagine if Lewis Carrol had been accompanied by Bram Stoker on that ‘Golden Afternoon’ on the River Thames in 1862 and the two had agreed to collaborate on the greatest fantasy of the nineteenth century…? The result is A Red & Pleasant Land, a riotously surreal assembly of the weird and the whimsical, a bloody melange of murderous imagination,and whether ‘Dracula’s Adventures in Wonderland' by Bram Stoker or ‘The Diaries of Alice Bathory' by Lewis Carroll, A Red & Pleasant Land is an artful act of making the unoriginal original once again.