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

Sunday 10 March 2019

Batrachian Horrors & Tumorous Tubers

As the title suggests, What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton is a scenario set in the Hill Cantons, a region described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.” Previous releases—Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld—have focused on specific places in the region, not forgetting of course, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, the city at the heart of the Cantons. Published by Hydra Collective LLCWhat Ho, Frog Demons! expands greatly upon these specific adventure locations by presenting the wilderness which surrounds all of them, that is Marlinko Canton, as a bucolic yet weird, mini-hexcrawl, infested with neatly trimmed, but sleepy villages and hamlets inhabited by smiling rustic yokels who adamantly adhere to customs, practices, and beliefs that are probably weirder than the last settlement you passed through.

Designed for a group of four to seven player characters of between Second and Fourth Level, What Ho, Frog Demons! is written for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord, but of course is easily adaptable to the Old School Renaissance retroclone of your choice. It details a region roughly twenty-eight by forty-eight miles, with some fourteen fixed sites of interest; thirty-six random encounters encompassing ‘Road Riff-Raff and Other Personages’, ‘Creatures Fell and Less Fell’, and ‘Sites of the Weird’; ‘Rumours, Hearsay, and Gossip of the Rankest Sort’ and ‘Weighty Conversation’; a pair of Adventure Sites; and a bestiary and a ‘Bucolic Village Generator’. Together this gives the Labyrinth Lord the means to run the journey between adventure locations like Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and the two described within the pages of What Ho, Frog Demons!, as well as a hexcrawl-style campaign fuelled by rumours and random encounters.

Of course, What Ho, Frog Demons! can be run in multiple different ways, whether as a standalone wilderness region or as source of scenarios, encounters, rumours, and monsters to be taken apart and added to a Labyrinth Lord’s existing campaign. Really though, it is designed to be combined with Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko to give the Labyrinth Lord a campaign for low to mid-Level characters set in the Hill Cantons. There are numerous links to all three locations in the pages of What Ho, Frog Demons!, primarily in the rumours and conversations it gives to help the Labyrinth Lord present engaging NPCs and give hooks for her player characters to follow up. At the heart of What Ho, Frog Demons! though—and what several of the hooks point to, are its two adventure sites.

The first adventure site is ‘The Frog Demon Temple’, what the author call a ‘Saturday Night Specials’, a small dungeon designed to be played between larger, longer adventures. Running to just eleven locations, this is a damp, foetid, batrachian hell hole sitting awfully close to a Hot Hell and which suggests further dangers to be found lurking under the Hill Cantons and which is probably too tough a dungeon to throw at characters of the lower Level range that What Ho, Frog Demons! is written for. 

Where ‘The Frog Demon Temple’ is likely to offer one or two sessions’ worth of play—less if the player characters realise that it is just too tough and decide to make a run for it, the second adventure site presents a much longer, more traditional scenario in the vein of Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. ‘Beets for the Beet God’ takes place in the village of Ctryri Ctvrt where rumour has it that a local farmer has dug up a giant beet—or beetroot—allegedly marked with a strange, face-like blemish. Other hooks are given to get the player characters there, but whatever the reason for their visiting, it really is not too far for them to go from anywhere in the Marlinko Canton. What the party will find is yet another sleepy village, one full of nicely drawn NPCs, each with their own motivations which will change over the course of the adventures. The player characters are free to wander as they wish, interact with the NPCs as they wish, and in doing so, they will discover the weirdness at the heart of the adventure. There is the possibility that they will stop the weirdness early on, but player characters being player characters…

The primary similarities between Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld and ‘Beets for the Beet God’ are structural. All three are ‘pointcrawl’ adventures—consisting of connected adventure nodes rather than a hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between—but where Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld are regional in size, ‘Beets for the Beet God’ is limited to just Ctryri Ctvrt and its manor house. All three use an index—or clock—to track the progress of elements or forces at the heart of the scenario. In the previous two scenarios, this was a ‘Chaos Index’, which tracked the response of those elements or forces to the player characters’ actions, but here it is an ‘Infection Index’ which tracks the progress of its threat if the player characters decline to act. Ultimately, if they decline to act, the threat escalates into one that infect the whole of the Marlinko Canton… and beyond.

‘Beets for the Beet God’ is the highlight of What Ho, Frog Demons! It is a delightfully playful satire upon the conspiracy/zombie infection genres, but one that perfectly suits the bucolic weirdness that runs throughout Marlinko Canton.

Physically, What Ho, Frog Demons! is a well-presented book. It is profusely illustrated, not quite as archly styled as Misty Isles of the Eld, but nevertheless weird, rife with rustic insularity and bucolic resentment, and involving lots of frog demons. Many of the latter verge on the adorable, possessing an almost Muppet-like cuteness, but others are twisted and freaky, infusing the canton with batrachian horror. The cartography is also good and the writing is engaging and enjoyable.

What Ho, Frog Demons! is something of a contrast to the previous two adventures, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. With their use of the ‘Pointcrawl’, both are tightly focused in their design to enable the Labyrinth Lord and her players to concentrate on adventuring rather than having to travel. So it feels a little odd to have what is a hexcrawl rather than a Pointcrawl for the Hill Cantons, but What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton brings the Marlinko Canton to quiet life with its parochial oddities and bucolic weirdness that together hide the horrors that lie in the garden shed and in the earth below.

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