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

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Witches, Weirdness, & Whimsey

Woodfall is a ‘Dark Fantasy Mini Setting’ of a communal living, regulated necromancy, trafficked faeries, swamp mutants, witchcraft, unregulated necromancy, and the exceedingly good benefits of socialism. Published by Lazy Liches Loot following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a mini-hexcrawl involving a small town and a swamp that is designed to do three things. First, to be easy to drop into an existing and it does this by being enclosed by mountains and forest on three sides. Second, to be systems neutral so that it can be used with any fantasy roleplaying system. Thus, there are no game stats in Woodfall at all, but that said, its language and its fantasy is essentially that of Dungeons & Dragons, so it would work with just about any Old School Renaissance retroclone. In terms of tone, the retroclone the setting feels nearest to is Lamentation of the Flame Princess’ Lamentation of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, as there are elements of horror, revolution, and the grotesque to Woodfall. Third, it is designed to run with a minimum of preparation, so much of the individual content and descriptions are given in easily digestible bullet point and nugget-sized form. All this comes packaged in a heavily illustrated neat little digest-sized hardback.

The setting described in Woodfall is Woodfall Town and the adjacent, dark and oppressive swamp. Located on a series of mounds on the edge of the swamp, it is home to outlaws, thieves, and witches, a sanctuary for rebels and all those who oppose the nearby kingdom as well as faeries liberated from their enforced servitude as good luck charms for the kingdom’s major noble houses. This is why many of its citizens plot the overthrow of the king and the king has stationed soldiers nearby to monitor what is going on in the town. The town also offers and allows free healing for those who cannot afford it elsewhere, allows a thieves’ guild to operate in return for a share of its takings to support the village, provides a refuge for women escaping abuse or arranged marriages, and allows necromancers to raise skeletons with written permission. Other shops and services to be found inside the town include sellers of masks (though the Game Master will need to determine what the masks do) and potions—made from local ingredients, a fence for handling stolen goods, and an expert forger. Politically, the town limits how much land and property an inhabitant can own and allows the inhabitants of each dry mound to send their representatives—different from week to week—to a general meeting where executive decisions are made, essentially a bit like a zoviet or an anarcho-syndicalist commune!

Woodfall includes a good list of reasons why the adventurers might come to town. These range from being a spy sent by the nearby kingdom on a mission, having stolen goods for sale, and seeking specialised healing to looking for training, needing a base from which to venture into the swamp, and to aid the town against the king making another eviction attempt. Once in the town and past the watching soldiers there are hirelings to be employed and rumours to be picked up at the Crooked Inn, but there is also much to be found in the swamp beyond the confines of the Woodfall. These include the soldier camp watching town, whose commander is the subject of pranks played on him by the townsfolk; the Revolutionary Corpse Council, a guild of necromancers who practised their art unfettered by morality from within their dungeon; a doomsday cult of spiky goblins based in a ‘Goblin Punk Fortress’ and its dungeons; a friendly troll and unfriendly witches; alien frogmen who just want to return to the stars; and quite a lot more. This includes encounters, new monsters, and advice on monster hunting—important because the player characters do not gain any Experience Point from killing creatures, but from objectives and treasure found.  There are also rules for magical item crafting, including potions, wands, and scrolls, which are supported with sample ingredients—such as magical woods, orb materials, and various flora, many of them to be found in the swamp and the wood.

Rounding out Woodfall are some ‘Changes Over Time’, basically outlining what happens as the plans and aims of the various factions proceed and come to fruition. All of these have the chance to greatly change the situation in and around Woodfall Town, including the area beyond its environs, the nearby parts of the Game Master’s campaign. There are also a few scenario ideas too, this in addition to the various ideas and hooks found throughout the book.

The description of Woodfall as a ‘Dark Fantasy Mini Setting’ is certainly apt, for tone of the setting is dark and the scale of the hexcrawl is ‘mini’. The scale is small, so the dungeons and lairs are small, the encounters are small, and so on. Yet that ‘mini’ aspect of the adventure often hides further secrets and scope for the Game Master to expand elements of the adventure, for example, by designing a particular dungeon herself. One obvious thing to do is expand the swamp and perhaps a way to do that is to bolt Fever Swamp from the Melsonian Arts Council onto the back of the swamp in Woodfall. This allow for a sense of weirdness which escalates as the adventurers move from Woodfall into the swamp nearby and then into the greater swamp detailed in Fever Swamp.

Woodfall’s design has both advantages and disadvantages. Its scale means that its writing is concise, often amounting to no more than a bullet point. This makes each easy to digest and bring its information to the table, whilst also leaving room for the Game Master to expand them and add her own content. Whilst this makes the content easy to run in terms of preparation, it does not negate the fact that preparation is needed since the supplement is systemless. Thus the Game Master has to provide the numbers for the persons, places, objects, monsters, and so on. This could be done on the fly, but the Game Master would need to know her game stats. On the plus side, Woodfall would work with the roleplaying system of her choice, not just an Old School Renaissance retroclone. One aspect that the Game Master would need to ensure that the mechanics of her choice does have and that is the means for creating and playing witches.

It should be noted that setting for Woodfall has a decidedly modern feel—early modern, that is, of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries—which shows in the organisations, their acronyms, and the politics that dominate Woodfall Town and the surrounding area. The Woodfall Welfare Group (WWG) distributes money, resources, and food to the needy; the Healers Association (HA) provides healing and care for the sick; the Faerie Liberation Front (FLF) frees enslaved faeries; and the Crisis Act Team (CAT) helps abused women, and so on. The politics are definitely anti-feudal, anti-monarchy, community-minded and pro-social responsibility, and given the emphasis on sharing the means of production and benefits of wealth, by any definition, socialist. The consequences of which should be interesting to explore in what is a fantasy roleplaying game given how we typically bring our contemporary sensibilities to a game.

Physically, Woodfall is a black and white hardback. It is liberally illustrated in a somewhat scratchy style, some of the cartography and artwork being rather good, but some of it being rather simplistic. The book is in general neat and tidy, although it does need a good edit in places.

Woodfall needs some preparation upon the part of the Game Master to ready its content for play, but once ready, there are multiple sessions of play to be found within its pages. In fact, there is the basis and means here to run a whole mini-campaign—primarily character led, but also directed by the hooks at the beginning of the book—in which the actions of adventurers would change the future of the region. A little rough around the edges, Woodfall is a compact campaign which opens up to give the Game Master space to make it hers and the players motivation to lead the adventure.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I love it! I purchased after reading your review and that of dirtbag Melan's; specially his. Whatever he hates I'm sure I will like because I usually like what makes conservative douchebags uncomfortable. But yours gave me a different perspective and I'm glad I bought the book.