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Friday, 8 June 2018

Moorcockian Meanderings

One of the factions with an interest in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes are the Eld—essentially ‘space elves’ from another dimension with a distinctly Melnibonéan-like, decadent sensibility—who cross the sea channel between their home in the Misty Isles to reach the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, which just lie off the Persimmon Sea and there claim to their long lost Golden Barge. Perhaps having encountered them in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the player characters now have the opportunity to follow the Eld—whom the scenario describe as being “Lawful Evil space elves with a taste for bizarre bureaucracy, biomancy, and (David) Bowie.”—back to their home, perhaps because they have a map or they have been hired by a patron such as the shark-like Ondrj the Reaver. This is the set-up for Misty Isles of the Eld, the second part of a trilogy of supplements and adventures published by Hydra Collective LLC for use with Labyrinth Lord. The other parts of the trilogy are Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, with all three being set in the Hill Cantons, a setting described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.”

Although written as part of the Hill Cantons setting, Misty Isles of the Eld is sufficiently isolated and self-contained enough that it can be placed almost anywhere in the Labyrinth Lord’s campaign setting. Designed for roughly four or five player characters of Third and Fourth Level, Misty Isles of the Eld is, like Slumbering Ursine Dunes before it, another ‘pointcrawl’ adventure rather than a hexcrawl. This depicts a region as a series of connected nodes rather than hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between. This makes travel in a sense more direct and avoids the problem of having an adventuring party wandering endlessly in the wilderness trying to find specific locations. Now where in Slumbering Ursine Dunes this turned the map of its region into something representational rather than exact and topographical, much like the map of the London Underground, on the island of the Misty Isles of the Eld, it is exact and topographical. This is because the layout of isle and the barriers which separate locations are pure artifice—giant meat-fed grubs arranged as ridges to suit the whims of the island’s current occupiers—and so arranged to be exact.

The clue to the nature of the Misty Isles lies in the phrase, “…arranged to be exact”, for it primarily consists of a once bucolic island occupied by the fey which has been suppressed and arranged into a fog-enshrouded, sterile, salt-white pocket hell by the intrusion of another dimension. This is Cold Hell, and from it sashay the Eld, tall and thin humanoids with elongated skulls and delicate fingers ready to impose their hierarchies on the island—and then perhaps beyond. As well as arranging the island’s topography with the purple and green-ribbed grub-ridges, the Eld have built a private party complex, a great monument which floats in the sky, a plantation house, an empty Pagoda City, and a vat complex where bodies are broken down and turned into fuel—body and soul. These last four sites make up the equivalent of dungeons Misty Isles of the Eld.

As soon as the player characters step onto the island, they will be exposed to the weirdness of the Eld. Not just the gigantic ridge-grubs with mouth-openings into which human slaves shovel half rotted flesh, but also flesh-blobs cleaning up some unsightly accident or carrying out an execution, Eld patrols leading vatmen bread as trackers, white apes unleashed to gain some exercise, a faerie forest left as a Schadenfreude Arena, and much, much more. As soon as the player characters begin interacting with the Eld, they live up to their Lawful (Evil) alignment and they react. The Eld Defence Plan is literally written into Misty Isles of the Eld with the island’s Eld Command Structure, led by Sub-Colonel Zogg, raising the Alert Level to deal with the intruders after they are first encountered by a patrol, have visited one of the island’s major locations or murdered an important Eld, and disrupted activities at one or more the facilities on the island. Eld Command will first increase the number of patrols before actively hunting the intruders. This is not the only sign of their progress, as the Chaos Index introduced in Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is in Misty Isles of the Eld inverted into the Anti-Chaos Index which tracks the consequences of the player characters’ actions, ideally to reverse the Eld influence on the isles and so return them to their former state.

There is a strangeness to every one of the eighteen locations on the Misty Isles, but the four ‘dungeons’ are unlikely to be anything like the player characters have ever encountered before. Rather than dungeons, they are complexes—work complexes, military complexes, factory complexes, and pleasure complexes—built using Eld superscience and magic. None of these complexes are particularly large, but all four are rife with weird detail and flavour.

In addition to describing the various locations and encounters to be found on the island, Misty Isles of the Eld comes with four appendices. These include a bestiary of the weird and wondrous creatures and creations the Eld brought with them from Bonegrinders and Cerebral Boreworms to Vat-Giants to Vatmen; a new Class, the Psychonaut; complete descriptions of the Eld artefacts to be found in the Misty Isles—weapons, tools, and miscellaneous; and reprints of the book’s various maps. The new Class is the Psychonaut, which treats Psionics as a combination of mutations and permanent spell-like powers, each with a limited number of uses per day. These include Aptitude Accelerant, which enables a Psychonaut to raise an attribute temporarily to 18 once per day, Biting Quip which enables him to deliver a comment barbed enough to drive the victim into a catatonic state, and Retrovlution, which drives its victims back down the evolutionary ladder. This all comes at the cost of several deformations, such as rooster clawed feet or a secondary brain. The Psychonaut is primarily a Class for the Eld, but perhaps a player character might develop these powers if exposed to the wrong—or the right—mutagens.

The Eld Artefacts give the player characters something to pick up and play with. All a player has to do is make a roll against his character’s Intelligence, the number of six-sided dice to be rolled depending on the complexity of the item. Once understood, their use can be taught to other characters of sufficient intelligence. There is the danger though that the devices will break in the learning attempt… This is a pleasingly simple way of handling fantasy characters meeting technology a la Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World.

Physically, Misty Isles of the Eld is well presented with stylish artwork and cartography which capture the studied oddness of the Eld. There is however, a lot going on in the scenario and the Labyrinth Lord will need to give it a careful read-through to understand how the different parts mesh together. Certainly, a better overview could have been provided rather than having to put these different parts together as you read through the book.

There have numerous scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons-style games in which the player characters encounter advanced technology, most obviously in S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, but in Misty Isles of the Eld, the player characters get to encounter both that technology and its wielders—and they are no fools. This means that the player characters will be faced with the challenge of strange magic and intelligent foes in addition to the dangers of exploration. This is in addition to the arch-weirdness and horror which permeates the scenario and really only makes it suitable for adult players.

Misty Isles of the Eld is one-part penetration by Moorcockian Science Fantasy from beyond, one-part extradimensional Melnibonéan-like space elves wanting to impose order, and one-part dazzle white home furnishings of the early seventies combined with Soviet-era brutalist monument design. This is a genuinely unique combination and the fact that the author manages to pull it off, marks the Misty Isles of the Eld as a singularly impressive scenario.