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

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Down these weird streets...

Hydra Collective LLC is best known for its weird and wonderful fantasy ‘pointcrawl’ adventures such as Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld, but Weird Adventures presents a different fantastical setting, a Strange New World influenced by Raymond Chandler and Robert Chambers, E. Gary Gygax and H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber and Dashiell Hammett, amongst others. It presents a world close our own in the 1930s, an America worn down by depression and isolated following a Great War twenty years before, and an America in which technology is booming and crime is rife. Yet this is a world in which the Ancients were real and knew great magics, greater than the magics of today. In the modern era, magic is commonplace and put to ends both good and evil. This is a Pulp setting which combines Noir and Fantasy, but despite the fact that Weird Adventures is an Old School Renaissance title, it is not written for any specific Old School Renaissance roleplaying game. So for example, whilst magic is described as following two separate paths—the academic and scientific approach of  thaumaturgy versus the intuitive nature of mysticism—what this means mechanically is left up to the Game Master to decide. Similarly, the Old Time Religion accepts the use of folk magic, whereas the Oecumenical Hierarchate only accepts the study and use of the divine theurgy in certain religious orders, and again, it is up to the Game Master to decide what this means. In fact, the only real use of game mechanics is in the supplement’s bestiary, which really supports the utility factor to Weird Adventures.

The setting for Weird Adventures is the New World of Zephyria, divided into two continents, Septentrion to the north, Asciana to the south. Septentrion is dominated by The Union with countries of Borea and Zingaro to the north and south respectively. Long before colonists from the nations of Ealderde and populated the continent, the Ancients—perhaps from lost, fabled Meropis—arrived bringing the Black Folk with them. The Ancients, thought to be giants, their descendants said to be the Hill-Billy Giants now found in the Smaragdine Mountains, were displaced by the arrival of the people now known as the Natives, who were in turn displaced by the Ealderish colonists. Immigrants from the Far East, known as Yianese have also settled in The Union’s major cities. Currently, the nations of Ealderde are struggling to recover from the effects of the Great War in which acidic fog, artillery shells filled with alchemical solutions, zeppelins armed with rays of fire, cold, and fear flew over battlelines and cities, and constructions that look like children’s toys struck at midnight. The Union has distanced itself from Ealderish affairs as an economic downturn spreads worldwide and drought and over-farming have caused a dust bowl in the elemental fields.

Weird Adventures does touch upon some of the other countries of Zephyria. Notably, Zingaro to the south of The Union and Freedonia, a land of perpetual revolution and civil where the people venerate the Barren Madonna, Our Lady of the Grave, ‘Sainted Mother Death’, a saint unrecognised elsewhere by the Oecumenical Hierarchate. The primary icons in Zingaro are the Crystal Skulls each of which possesses a strange power. The overall description of Zingaro runs only to three pages—leaving the reader to want more—and the lands of Borea to the north and Asciana to the far south are given a similar treatment. The bulk of the content in Weird Adventures can roughly be divided in two. The first half, entitled ‘On the Weird Road’ in a prescient nod to Kerouac’s On the Road, is devoted to The Union, from the city of New Lludd in the northeast to New Ylourgne in the south on the Zingaran Gulf and from Phratropolis in the east to San Tiburon in the west on the Tranquil Ocean coast via Lake City in the midwest. Each of the eleven areas is accompanied by descriptions—but not stats—of various individuals, aspects, and things associated with the regions. So, for the Smaragdine Mountains, there is a discussion of the Bootleg Alchemicals the region is famous for; of the holy swords the great families of New Lludd pass down to their paladin sons and daughters who hunt monsters in the name of the Old Time Religion; and ten rumours about the Red Dwarf, the besuited ill omen who invites people to tea in a red velvet room in the city of Motoron.

The other half explores the City of Empire, or The City, and its forty or so districts, plus the Five Baronies of Empire Island, Shancks, Rookend, Marquesa, and Lichmond, though they are not as well detailed as Empire Island, the heart of The City  is. The City is a constant mix of the mundane and the weird, whether that is the mysterious ethnic enclave of Little Carcosa and its exotic markets and street festival, and Grimalkin Village, home to thaumaturgical dilettantes, free thinkers, and lots of cats. These are lovely touches of the Lovecraftian, as are the Ghouls of Undertown, mostly reviled for their dietary habits. Elsewhere, The City is beset by more obvious horror, such as Mister Scratch—who has offices on the sixty-sixth floor of a downtown skyscraper and who might have connections with the Hell Syndicate—seen about town with the rich and the poor, offering favours and tidbits in return for something else much later on… From time to time individuals are possessed by the Lord of the Cleaver, an obscure ‘eikone’ or personification of a concept, and driven to maniacally kill in bloody fashion. Other strange elements of The City include an elusive phantom automat which never appears in the same place twice and which dispenses odd, but useful things as well as the usual coffee and sandwiches; the exterminators of the Municipal Department of Animal and Pest Control who have to clean out the tunnels—or is that the dungeons?—beneath The City; and the sorry lives of The City’s vampires, more addicts than predators…

Rounding out Weird Adventures is ‘Weird Menaces’, a short, nicely themed bestiary. It is here that the only game stats appear in the otherwise systemless supplement to detail Black Blizzards, para-elemental dust storms; Living Houses and Ghost Towns; Murder Ballads which induce homicidality; Pink Elephants, astral invaders which cause the inebriated to hurt themselves; and the Reds, agents of an underground civilisation which want to stamp out all free thought and individuality. Many of these monsters are huge fun and really fit the setting.

Physically, Weird Adventures is a nicely presented book, decently illustrated and written in an engaging style. Some of the best illustrations are actually for adverts, such as those for Djinn Cigarettes and the classified adverts at the back. One thing that very much lets the setting book down is the lack of an index. Finding anything without it is a real challenge. 

The question is, what could you do with Weird Adventures? The most obvious is to take it as is, find an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game of your choice, find some suitable firearm rules, and away you go. It is entirely up to the Game Master and her players whether or not to add the traditional races of Dungeons & Dragons, but there is room enough to add any or all of them. Yet the setting of Zephyria and The City are so rules-lite that Weird Adventures could easily be adapted so that they can be run with a variety of other roleplaying games. Combine Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos and The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic, and what you have with the Lovcraftian elements in Weird Adventures is something akin to Cast A Deadly Spell.  Alternatively turn up the action and use it as a precursor to Goodman Games’ Xcrawl; turn it down for more scholary adventures with Night Owl Workshop’s Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures; unplug the cyberware from Catalyst Game Labs’ Shadowrun roleplaying game and just use the races and magic; or simply take your pick of Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS books, starting with GURPS Basic Set: Characters and Campaigns plus GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Magic. Then again simply combine the Fantasy AGE RPG with the Modern AGE RPG, both from Green Ronin. 

One thing that any of these rules systems would provide is suggestions as to what to play. This is something that Weird Adventures does not do and as a supplement is very much a sourcebook for the Game Master rather than the player. It is also a pulp fantasy/horror supplement, so one aspect of Old School Renaissance fantasy it does not address is Tolkienesque fantasy, so there are no Elves, Dwarves, or Halflings in the New World of Zephyria. Their inclusion would probably change the setting in radical ways, but it would be interesting to what the ramifications would be. Were Weird Adventures to have a sequel or a companion, perhaps their inclusion, as well as those of suggested roles or Classes for the player characters. Certainly, a sequel would explain the effect of the illegal alchemical bootlegs or the powers and abilities of The City’s urban druids are, rather than leaving it up to the Game Master to decide and develop.

If you were looking for a pulp setting, then Weird Adventures is a fantastic choice, one which is easily adapted to the rule system of the Game Master’s choice. It is thoroughly impressive, not just in the level and richness of its detail, but also in the pulp, pulp, and pulp—fantasy, horror, and weird—it injects into the setting to bring the new World New of Zephyria, The Union, and The City to life.