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Friday 9 February 2024

Friday Fantasy: Wet Grandpa

Far up the River Whey there lives a monster. Well, not exactly a monster to be. It is not even as if he wants to be a monster. He is just old and lonely without his late wife and he has not long come back from being drowned. He has his grandchildren. After all, not for nothing were he and his wife known as Grandpa and Grandma Tolling. But they are young and he is old, and the young and the old do not understand each other. Especially when one of them has come back from the dead. So now Grandpa Tolling, not long since drowned, in the idle moments of his busy like—mostly as it was before—dreams of having companions like himself. Drowned. Connected to the waters of the river—somehow. And as the dead old man sleeps, the river rises and lowers, thrashes and surges, and the natural inhabitants of the river, the Naiads, are frightened. The river is their realm and they do not want to lose to some strange dead thing. The few remaining inhabitants of the nearest settlement, the town of Fatfish, have other worries. The river nearby was once full of fish just waiting to be hauled from the waters and fill the fishermen’s nets. Now the stocks of fish have long since gone and the fishing boats and their crews with them, leaving the once rich river port to fall into destitution, its inhabitants into despair and desperation. The few remaining inhabitants are divided between those who want to leave, those who want to stay, and those who simply no longer care. What might give them cause to leave are the dangers of the rising and falling waters of the fish-depleted river, were they to understand what those dangers mean. Were they to understand the now unnatural nature of the ‘Wet Grandpa’ on the Cursed Island, just across from the village, they might be more concerned…

Wet Grandpa is a scenario from Melsonian Arts Council, a publisher best known for Troika!, the science-fantasy role-playing game of exploring the multiverse. The scenario is ostensibly written for use with the Old School Renaissance, but in terms of stats it is relatively light. This means that Wet Grandpa can be run using all manner of Old School Renaissance retroclones, much in the manner of The Haunted Hamlet & other hexes, but with relatively little adjustment the scenario would work with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or even RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha or Old Gods of Appalachia. Wet Grandpa sets up a fantastic situation, one full of roleplaying potential, but the uneven presentation and tone works all too often to undermine what is an evocatively sodden and bedraggled situation built around the interaction and relationships between various NPCs. Fundamentally, the problem is twofold. First, the players’ introduction consists of a man selling a roughly printed treasure map to their Player Characters. The seller explains that the treasure site is near Fatfish, a community about two weeks’ travel up the River Whey. This is not only an underwhelming hook for the players, let alone their characters, it ignores the richness of the situation in and around Fatfish and the interactions between the NPCs, any part of which could have been used to hook the Player Characters. Instead, the given hook is bland, even boring.

Second, the Referee’s Introduction does not start with an introduction to the scenario, but with an explanation of the situation of Grandpa Tolling. At that point, the Game Master is wondering how the two are connected. In fact, there are three strands to the scenario—Grandpa Tolling, the town of Fatfish, and the Naiads—but it is not until the reader gets to the last strand that he can begin to work out what is going on. So, from the start, the Game Master is unclear as to what she is reading and how it all links together, which hampers both her understanding and her preparation time. To be fair, once the Game Master has read much further into the book, she will be able to grasp what is going on and make the connections ready for her and her players, but this does not negate what is a fundamental error upon the part of the author.

Fortunately, once Wet Grandpa gets into its individual sections, it begins to come alive—or not in the case of the undead Grandpa Tolling. The descriptions of his current life and that of the few remaining inhabitants of Fatfish are evocatively forlorn and forgotten. An elderly couple, the Caplins, sit in their cabin, waiting for their sons to return, but they never will; with the loss of fish stocks, former fishing boat owner, Karlin Wilamyer, has forbidden his family from leaving though they want to, whilst his brother who did get away, wants to rescue his niece and nephew; the families of Dana Strix and Haren Greene have all died or left, either that or the two lovers simply murdered them; and Jorf Quine is waiting for his aunt to die so he can leave, and he might hurry it along—just a little. The families, what there is of them, are mouldering into the ground. Here there are some taunt little tensions between the various NPCs which only need the presence of the Player Characters to be brought out into play. The Game Master will need to develop her description of Fatfish itself, mostly drawing upon the detailed timeline included, such as suggesting the number of houses, the insect swarm ridden gardens, and so on.

As much opposed to Grandpa Tolling as scared of what he might become, the four Naiads—one per season—are also similarly detailed. Each of the four Naiads has a distinct form and character, Winter being an emaciated cougar, Summer a giant glass-eyed crow, and so on. They are minor gods at this point, but depending upon the actions of the Player Characters may grow in stature and power to become gods. Although capricious, they can be interacted with as what they really want is Grandpa Tolling dealt with. As a reward, the Naiads will grant access to their shared treasury, or simply abandon it, leaving for the Player Characters to discover and plunder, if they ascend to godhead. The treasury is a short, little dungeon whose primary threat is a nasty trap.

Rounding out Wet Grandpa is a guide to what happens if nobody stops Grandpa Tolling, followed by stats and more descriptions of the inhabitants of Fatfish and an encounter table for the area around the village. This includes the River Whey and the Cursed Island upon which Grandpa Tolling and his family of orphans live. It could also be used for the long two-week journey up the River Whey to Fatfish.

Physically, Wet Grandpa is presented as a board book, with a non-glossy, plain matte cover and no spine so that the glue binding is visible. The feeling in the hand is rough and tactile like that of the much later Frontier Scum. The scenario is readable and well written—in places. Elsewhere, the content is poorly organised. The artwork is bright and colourful, if rough.

Wet Grandpa has all of the elements to present a tensely playable situation between a dying village, a rising, but unwanted unnatural power, and fearful natural powers. Yet time and again, its poor organisation and its poor presentation of information hamper its ease of use and preparation. Potentially, there is a good scenario to be played in Wet Grandpa, if the Game Master is prepared to put the effort in pulling it out and putting the various parts together in a more playable fashion.

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