Published by Lost Pages, Genial Jack Vol. I is the first issue of a serialised setting that is one-part the Book of Jonah, one-part Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport, one-part Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships or Gulliver’s Travels, one part Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, but all weird nautical urban fantasy that can be best described as ‘whale-punk’. This is because Genial Jack Vol. I details a levianthine Blue Whale which for centuries has been home to the teeming town of Jackburg built across his thick skin and in his stomachs and deep into his intestines, much of it made up of the ships he has swallowed and those that have sailed into his maw and permanently moored inside of him. Jackburg is home to peoples and islands that the whale—the ‘Genial Jack’ of the title—has swallowed, from the Draugr to the Fomorians, and today it serves as a roaming free port, from which merchants sell the strange and exotic goods they have acquired in distant lands as well as the ambergris constantly formed deep in his gut.
Designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—but very easily adapted to the retroclone of your choice—Genial Jack Vol. I focuses very much on the peoples and places of Jackburg. The former includes over thirteen new player character Races. These start with the undead Draugar, drowned corpses from the north who dwell in longships and a reputation for fell curses and trading in people, and Finfolk, sly, shapeshifting merfolk who are known for their illusions and the indentured workers they mark with their bloodsucking maws; and Formorians, giants banished from Faerie by Queen Mab who can cast an evil eye about, but are skilled crafters of magical devices and weapons and armour, to Sirens, who have reputations as malicious seductresses, but are highly charismatic and help in Jackburg’s aerial defence; Undines, water elementals who can turn into water and back again and work in Jackburg powering waterwheels, serving as living air-suits, and moving vessels and cargo; and Urchins, Jackburg’s underclass, beggars—Urchin Beggars?—who will happily eat rubbish, but who are considered to be lucky. The others do include Humans, but also the hive-mind Jellyfolk, the Karkinoi crustacean warriors, tentacular mercantile Octopoids, the sentient and artistic coral Polypoids, the bankers and thieves who make up the Ratfolk, and the often vicious shark-men raiders known as the Selachians, who include an individual casino-owner and moneylender who is called, of course, the Loan Shark. All of these Races have adapted to an amphibious life aboard Genial Jack and inside Jackburg, including being able to see in dim or low lighting, many need to be submerged at least once per day.
Genial Jack Vol. I then examines each of Jackburg’s districts in both Outer Jackburg and Inner Jackburg, the former being on the exterior of Genial Jack, the latter inside him. Each is given a full page which includes a short description and a handful of encounters and locations. So along the great whale’s flanks can be found Barnaclebank, the series of barnacles which have been hollowed out and linked via tunnels of reinforced glass and iron, then carved and reshaped, many of them into gun emplacements, harpoon launchers, and torpedo bays manned by the Whaleguard, Jackburg’s guard and security forces—unsurprisingly, Genial Jack has a decent navy to protect both himself and Jackburg. The encounters include an emergency as a porthole has cracked and is letting in water with the player characters being the nearest ones who can fix it before the Whaleguard can get there and the discovery of an enormous crimson pearl brought ashore by Jackburg’s fisherfolk, which might be anything from a mermaid lich’s phylactery to a resurrection stone. The locations given thumbnail descriptions are the Barnaclebank Fish Market which operates on the extendable docks on Genial Jack’s starboard flank, and the Sea Star Saloon, a tavern inside a single, huge barnacle-shell which is run by a man with the lower body of a starfish and which caters to Whaleguard officers and fishermen alike.
At the other end is The Gutgardens at the bottom of the whale’s main stomach. Here fish and krill is received from Genial Jack’s maw via canals and tubes and cultivated into gut bacteria and symbiotic algae which soothes his innards. They are worked by Gutgardeners in signature green and black uniforms with gas masks and heavy-duty work boots and gloves. The encounters include coming across a pair of Bloodskulls gang members about to dunk a debtor in Acid Lake; an invasion of Feral Fungoids driven into frenzy after feeding on Genial Jack’s blood; and a poisonous miasma that will leave all who breathe it in with a lung infection. The locations include an abattoir where a Jellyfolk mentalist humanely stuns livestock before their slaughter; the aforementioned Acid Lake, where enclosed and perfumed domes provide popular picnic spots for those from Inner Town; and the Digestive Reserves, areas kept entirely free of buildings and people to aid in Genial Jack’s digestion.
Some twenty or so districts are described in this fashion, along with a centre spread illustration/map of Genial Jack and Jackburg, as well as a list of city slang. So far, so good, but so far this is forty pages into Genial Jack Vol. I and the reader is left wondering how all of this works, who is in charge, and so on. At this point, Genial Jack Vol. I does cover the authorities of Jackburg, including The Captains’ Conclave held at Mysterium Tremendum, a massive ship and alehouse, where every captain and depending on the size of their constituent populations they represent, ship’s mates too, express their opinions and suggest where the Whale journeys next. Such are directions are imparted by the Navigators, the divine intercessors between the peoples of Jackburg and the ‘Godwhale’ that is Genial Jack, who are descended from those first shipwrecked inside him. Lastly, the Whaleguard is Jackburg’s navy and police force. Rounding out Genial Jack Vol. I are some details of Jackburg’s laws and criminal organisations as well as a list of some twenty interesting Jackburgers, inhabitants of Jackburg.
Physically, Genial Jack Vol. I is more of a magazine rather than a book. Down in black and white throughout, this first issue is richly illustrated with some fantastic cross sections of Jackburg’s twenty districts. Use of the art does veer into the repetitious, but it has to be said it is good art. On the downside, the twelve new Races are only given portrait illustrations rather than full body shots, so players and Referee alike will need to use a little imagination there. The cover though is absolutely fantastically fantastic, a piece of artwork which just grabs the reader. Elsewhere, the writing is decent, as is the editing.
Genial Jack Vol. I still feels as if it is missing one or two things. Obviously a scenario, but then it has almost forty encounters across the various districts it describes, but more problematically there is no discussion of what Classes are suitable or found in Jackburg and there are no new Classes. Yet, the one thing that is really missing is a discussion of the technology found on and in the Godwhale. Gunpowder definitely, but also an overhead tram which runs from Genial Jack’s Maw down its oesophagus, and working of iron and glass into tunnels, all of which suggests advanced technology of a kind. Exactly what though, is another matter. Hopefully, it will be covered in a later issue.
Although written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the rules content in Genial Jack Vol. I is very light being confined to the various abilities possessed by each Race. This means that it is very easy to adapt to the retroclone of your choice and it is very much a case of Genial Jack Vol. I being imaginative enough to transcend any limitations a Referee or player should have with regards to their roleplaying game of choice. Not only could this be adapted to the retroclone of your choice, it could be adapted to the setting of your choice, whether that is Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport: City of Adventure or the world of 50 Fathoms for use with Savage Worlds or the Referee’s own campaign world.
Although just the first issue, Genial Jack Vol. I is a satisfying appetiser for what promises to be an imaginatively weird and wonderful setting. It can absolutely be described as unique, the first ‘whalepunk’ setting. Genial Jack Vol. II is eagerly awaited.