Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Evils of Ilmire (Zine Review)


The Evils of Illmire is a zine written by Zack Wolf. It was funded by another very respectable Zinequest 2 kickstarter (506 backers). The zine centers on the cursed town of Illmire and a 19 hex map that surrounds it, an entire campaign worth of material in 68 packed pages of small type--along with numerous downloadable bonuses including a 4-page "underdark expansion"--that you could run as is with almost no preparation. 

Damn Big

I can't emphasize how much material the zine contains: a map and write up for Illmire the starting town; a keyed map for the inn where the players are likely to stay; nineteen meaty hex descriptions each with their own random encounter table (!); and FOURTEEN completely keyed and mapped dungeons (!!). Aside from the high page count and small print, the zine accomplishes this with a pair of nifty tricks. 

  1. All stat blocks are relegated to a monster stat block section at the end of the book. The same for descriptions of the copious magical items inn the zine. Aside from one problem I'm mention later, I found it very easy to flip to the back to check on stats. (If I were running it, I would print this section out ahead of time.) This is a neat trick that save a lot of space; while not everyone will want to do this, it's a nice tool to have. 
  2. All the dungeons in the zine are attractive two page spreads, unless they have a key factional player in them, in which case the two page spread is supplemented by a further two page illustrated spread on the major players involved. This makes the dungeons all pretty small, mainly lairs and hideouts.
Although The Evils of Illmire almost comically pushes the limits of how much material one zine can deliver, it still manages to feel like a zine. It was graphically designed and written for the page size of a zine, as one can tell from the relentless two page dungeon spreads. Furthermore, the zine uses thin paper and a professional printer (perhaps Mixam?) with the capacity to fold and staple high page counts, so that despite being thick, it is well-folded and lies almost flat when closed like a proper zine.  

Note, what follows contains some spoilers. If you might play in the world of this zine, probably don't read on.

Good Vanilla

I would describe the setting of the zine as vanilla, but in a good way. By vanilla I mean that it uses a lot of classic D&D monsters (not always by name), and the town of Illmire bears a very strong resemblance to Gary Gygax's classic module T1 Village of Hommlet. (In fact, you might think of the town of Illmire as a reskinning of Hommlet in an alternate universe where the forces of good in the town had been driven out or destroyed.) When I say it's "good" vanilla, I mean that it works with these iconic elements in ways that are refreshing and not stale. In that sense, this module would serve as an excellent introduction to players who wanted to experience classic D&D for the first time, while also offering surprises to old hands like me. While I'm obviously not a vanilla man myself (my zine is lilac flavored with candied orchids on top), I can appreciate a vanilla sundae with fudge sauce from time to time.

But I found myself vacillating between two very different views of the setting of this zine. On the one hand, there's something refreshingly light or fairytale like about a lot of things in the zine. There are alpine woods with enchanted lumberjacks. There's a lake covered in strange mists with a legendary giant fish in it. There's an impenetrable forest of thorny brambles, and a crystal palace in the mountains where a giant lives who will host you at a feast. 

There's also a sandbox with a lot of mystery, with multiple layers, some more and some less obvious. There are a lot of ongoing dastardly schemes with villains hiding in plain sight.  The mystery feels almost Scooby-Dooish at times, in a good way. I feel like the aesthetic of fairytale cursed countryside plus the Scooby-Doo vibe is embodied visually in the cover by Heather Shinn and Jack Badashski. It fits well with the "good vanilla" aspects of the setting. 

On the other hand, the cult at the heart of things seems to be drawn from a different aesthetic universal. If anything, it reminded me most of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying. The cult is evil. Like, really evil. Extreme torture. Slavery, including vaguely implied sex slavery (the giant king has sex slaves too). Human Sacrifice. Total mind control. Poisoning children. Nurturing hideous entities in terrible basements filled with gore. There's something called "the Fearmother" involved. Of course there is. 

This excellent illustration by Patrick Olsson belongs more in this other aesthetic universe

Reading this stuff left me feeling kind of awful. I'm a fan of Call of Cthulhu and a huge fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (1E), so I can roll with demonology, hideous cults, and deadly alien entities in the right aesthetic context. But somehow these grubby and vile notes sounded dissonant when played alongside the charming mystery melody of the rest of the zine. But hey, I'm just one person. Maybe the notes struck together will be a dulcet harmony in your ear.

Interesting Approach to the Hexcrawling

The zine contains tidy little systems for hexcrawling, weather, and mountain climbing for exploring the peaks on the map, all of which I enjoyed. The map is nicely divided into three different geographical regions, one mountainous, one forested, and one swampy. But the map is less about region or terrain type, since each six mile hex is really a little world world unto itself.

There are no empty hexes, since each hex has a meaty write-up and almost all hexes have a dungeon hidden in them that players can find (3 in 6 chance) by searching the hex and hazarding an extra encounter check. Each hex also has its own separate encounter table drawing on the secret dungeon to be found there and what's in the surrounding hexes. As a result, there's a lot of texture, and individual hexes would, I think, be very memorable. Again, it's a sort of innovative model that could be emulated, although it wouldn't work for a very large map. 

The 14 mini-dungeons on the hexmap are mainly very well done. Dyson Logos did lovely and highly functional maps for them all. While not all are equally gripping some are very good, like The Observer's Tower, and Prismatic Grotto of the Fishmen. Those few dungeons with big NPCs in them are also accompanied by nice illustrations that hang together well. 

Some Things That Could Be Better 

There are some elements of the zine that could definitely be better. The prose could be more evocative, shorter, and punchier in places. The zine also has some organizational foibles that would be relatively easy to avoid.

For one thing, Wolf begins the hexmap key with a sequential overview of each numbered hex. I didn't find this very helpful, since the overview often didn't contain enough information for me to know what was going in the hex. The overview is then followed by a hexkey that has an almost random numeric order. It covers the hexes in this order: 19, 15, 16, 11, 10, 14, 18, 7, 12, 5, etc. You might be thinking this ordering corresponds to the different geographical regions of the map, but you'd be wrong. The sequence starts off with things in the order players are likely to encounter them, but then eventually jumps a fair bit around the map. 

Here are some basic principles about keying maps of whatever kind: 1. Every numbered area must be keyed 2. The areas must be keyed in numeric order. If you want the description in the key to flow a certain way, plan ahead and number things accordingly. For this reason, I recommend numbering rooms and hexes on the map last, so you can move the keys for them around in the text as suits your purposes.

Bizarrely, the same thing happens in the stat-blocks of monsters and NPCs. They are roughly in alphabetical order. Are you kidding me? There are also some inconsistencies I noticed; for examples the demons are said to have magical powers in their descriptions, but none were listed in the stat blocks. 

How I would Run This Zine

The truth is that you could run an entire campaign from this zine pretty much right out of the box without doing much more than reading it first. But here are some things I would do to prep.

  1. I would start the party off coming into town and consider carefully how villagers and the cult are likely to react to them. I would think about how the villagers, who are all suffering from paranoia, would react to strangers coming into town. I think I would have the cult play it cooly at first, given that the adventurers are likely to seem initially like a capable group.
  2. I would pick a few starting dungeons and give the players hooks that tell them where to look for them. I would try to pick some that made them tromp across several hexes to get there. I would also make the hexcrawling rules known so that they realize that each hex has secrets to uncover.
  3. I would tone down the gore horror of the cult involved areas a bit, remove sexual slavery from the module, reduce torture references, and so on, to bring it more in line with the mystery woods vibe. 
  4. I would drop hints about a couple of mysteries from early on, like where did the the druid go, and so on. I would try to give them a sense over time of how desperate people in the town were and make sure some of the townspeople were likable and memorable characters.
  5. I would probably add one larger-size dungeon to break up the relentless lair-sized vibe of the dungeons on the map, I'm not sure which one. I would likely add it to the underdark portion, since that's least explored. I also love the idea that Zack Wolf floats in his 4 page underdark supplement of a parallel underdark pointcrawl map with locations beneath various hexes. I would also think about adding Matt Finch's underdark module: Demonspore: Secrets of the Shroom. 

Rating and Capsule Review

If you want an entire "good vanilla" campaign with a comfortable but fresh classic vibe, ready to run right out of the zine, then buy it right now here. If you want a repository of small dungeons to steal for your own hexmap, this product is also an excellent value. It also holds some interest for those who are looking for different models for how to develop hexcrawls. If vanilla's not your flavor, maybe give it a pass. At only $10 for print, and $5 for PDF it is a steal.

****/***** It gets four out of five stars: it's good! 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

You've Got a Job on the Garbage Barge! (Zine Review)

You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge! is a zine by Amanda Lee Franck with a series of stretch goal collaborators, including Scrap Princess, Aaron King, Dungeons and Possums, Sasha Sienna & Jonathan Sims, and Zedeck Siew. The zine was funded through a very successful Zinequest kickstarter that had 700 backers. 

This zine is a system neutral campaign setting in 58 pages, a little world in a bottle that could, with a fair amount of work sustain a full campaign of retro-gaming play. The zine builds a sandbox (trashbox?) aboard a cyclopean multi-level dilapidated garbage barge that has been perpetually slogging up and down the coast, stopping to take garbage in exchange for fuel. The patrons and NPCs are a motley crew of down to earth laborers from tugboat operators named Irene (an AI) to dock workers, garbage sorters, trash miners and the like. As you might expect, there are people with a lot of pluck and grit, and not a few hearts of gold. There are also thieving racoons, fighting fish, talking bugs, evil interdimensional garbage wizards, forests of rebar, self-replicating frogs, and much more.

The Good

The setting has a heck of a lot of mystery: Who made the garbage barge and where did they go? What is the burning city and how did it get on the garbage barge? What is the lake of glowing orange gas? Is the trash in the barge infinitely deep? What happened to the third tugboat? I’m on record saying that every sandbox setting should come with big mysteries, so I certainly approve.


Another thing I like about the setting, admittedly under-explored in the already stuffed zine, is that it is a mobile campaign setting. The barge moves between different ports of call. The players can disembark the trashbox for brief episodic adventures or fun (all carousing should happen in ports). As someone who has run a thematically focused sandbox campaign for four years, I can tell you that these kind of episodic side hooks can be a lifeline. It's neat the way the setting builds in an "outside" to the sandbox for diversions like this.


The zine also has a lovely sideways cutaway map by Franck wryly labelled “The Known Barge”, which shows the relations of different locations, the terrain that lies between them, and also some different ways of getting there. As play starts many parts of the barge have just recently opened up by the discovery and magical enlargement of a defunct pneumatic tube mail system that intersects with a warren of raccoon tunnels. The opening up of formerly closed territory and the opportunity this provides for exploration and adventuring in the unknown is an excellent campaign starter. (The opening of Ultan's door is another instance of this type.)


The Mainly Good

The kickstarter for this zine had a festival air. The art and text were great. Quirky trash scavenging is reminiscent of themes with heavy circulation in the OSR during the heydays of Google plus, evoking nostalgia for earlier days of the scene that had giant sandbox ruined sea vessels (HMS Apollyon) and scavenging trash aplenty. As stretch goals were hit, the zine expanded from 32 pages to its current 58 pages. The large list of collaborators, some new, some old hands, gave it a feeling of a passing of the torch. 


The zine clearly gained a lot of heart through the recruitment of stretch goal collaborators. It also gained some amazing content. But through this process I suspect it became a bit more like the garbage barge it describes: from a tightly conceived and charming campaign setting, with each stretch goal it became a bit more like a motley assortment of ideas, art, writing tones, layout decisions, and presupposed rulesets, jumbled together, with quirky and delicious “finds” peeking out from a bed of rusted toasters and cracked porcelain.

Just look at this amazing toad king wearing a chandelier as a necklace, drawn by Franck. Badass!

The art by Franck and stretch goal illustrations by Scrap Princess are excellent. Franck is an illustrator whose work you can see here. Her illustrations in the zine run the gamut from charming to downright striking. I loved them! Scrap Princess works in their distinctive style, which fits thematically with the setting, but isn’t entirely in line with Franck’s style. The difference isn't jarring, but nor is it a perfect fit. 

This fox snake by Scrap Princess is pretty great.

Some of the other stretch goal contributions are wonderful. 

  • Scrap’s rules for running Kat’s salvage armory. You bring her useful scrap and she puts together jerry-rigged equipment—the settings very own scrap princess! 
  • Aaron King's extensive tables of different garbage smells  are also fantastic, especially when paired with the accompanying economy of smells mini-game, and the scent skald bard college rules (which seem to be for 5E). 
  • Zedeck Siew’s speaking bettas—a kind of noble and divine fighting fish--are evocative and fun, although the tone is different from the rest of the zine, and they seem a little over-powered as an optional PC class.

Other contributions worked less for me, including Scrap’s Yoo-Hoos--confused, amalgamated, pop-culture weirdos, and an adventure by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims I’ll come to in a minute.

This brings me to an important point: collaboration is hard if you want to maintain a consistent vision and level of quality. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my zine, since I’m trying to open it up to greater collaboration. Zines, being so short and focused, are perfect vehicles for a singular vision, but they’re hard to collaborate on in exacting ways—because, hey it’s just a zine, and if someone is nice enough to throw their hat in the ring to support your vision. Franck paid her contributors generously, but in the DIY scene who wants to police the content of paid contributors like you were their boss? No one. 


The Definitely Could be Better 

The zine looks good, quite good, but there are some eyebrow raising layout decisions. Not a big deal--nitpicks really--but I thought I'd mention them. Like the zine contains this table with fonts of all different sizes, including some that practically require a magnifying glass for aged eyes. Don't ever vary fonts in a single table, and don't go this small ever.

Or, again, here's a table for "New Items" at Kat's salvage shop that looks like it was laid out in MS Word, with a box around the whole thing, including the title, and then broken up between two page spreads. This also doesn't look great. 

Look at Franck's great drawing of that raccoon!

Retro-gamers loves tables. My take away from this is that you can't just throw any kind of table into a zine. Think about cutting your tables down, or doing a table that can be presented as a numbered list rather than a multi-celled table, or presenting the same material without a table at all. Even if you're laying things out in MS Word, you can probably make it look pretty good if you remember you're writing a zine and not an a4 sized book, and there are some constraints given the format. I struggle with this in my own zine, even with the help of layout people using InDesign. Try not to split tables across multiple spreads, especially if the table is in a box. 

A Difference of Play Style

Initially, I thought that a more significant weak spot of this otherwise wonderful zine is that the keyed locations it provides on the map, while fun and interesting, with factions and mysteries aplenty, are not written up as sites for location-based adventures.This is the main business of a map in the style of retro-gaming that I'm accustomed to: it presents locations for adventure in the mode of dungeon or pointcrawl that can be discovered through geographical exploration. (To be fair, there are a couple of candidate locations. For example, the three bilges deep in the vessel are easy to imagine building out into full locations for exploration with excellent treasure opportunities; but that’s about it.) 

At first I was very confused about this--how could the zine do such a good job in general but miss this?--but then it became clear to me that I was misunderstanding how Franck envisions play proceeding. The problem lay with my assumptions rather than the zine itself.

I got a clue from both the title of the zine and the two included adventures, both of which have PCs taking a job for a boss to go do a specific thing. The envisioned mode of play of the zine is less self-directed exploration of the unknown in search of treasure (salvage) and more taking  job offers from patrons to go to specific locations and do specific work under the threat of various hazards and complications. The location entries are not really written as seeds for imagining a dungeon or point-crawl to be explored by free-wheeling PCs as I had assumed, but rather as fuel for imagining jobs that the PCs might get hired to do.  The two adventures in the zine, one by Franck ("your first job on the garbage barge") and one by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims, probably are intended to give us some sense of how this might go. 

Franck's adventure involves the players taking a job to vent a concrete enclosed gas lake that's gonna blow. It seems promising given that it's a sort of "hands on" job dealing with weird decaying situation that fits the setting well. Unfortunately it is marred by a confusing presentation. Despite several readings I had trouble understanding how the two maps included were related to one another and to the description of the site. Franck also presents things in a disorienting order, omitting entries for several numbered locations. She also mixes in important NPCs and generalized threats in the middle of the key for the map, rather than pulling them out and presenting them at the beginning. But the adventure is flavorful, industrial, and useful in that it gives you the general gist of how this whole getting hired to do jobs thing might go.

The other adventure, by Sienna and Sims is a riff on Journey to the Center of the Earth. It has the players taking a job to help crew a drill ship that is to explore the question whether the trash on the barge is in fact infinitely deep. The adventure is well-written and presented, with a nice set of characters on the drill ship, and a simmering open-ended plot involving a plan by some of the crew to mutiny and steer the vessel elsewhere. But unfortunately the adventure does not seem to be written with sandbox style play in mind. For the different "locations" the drill ship encounters as it goes down read more like a series of amusing planned encounter scenes, admittedly with a lively cast of characters and (at lower levels) things getting suitably cosmic. The adventure is not really compatible with retro-gaming play: the rails are there plain to see in the set sequence of encounter scenes at various strata, and the space of creative anarchy is in the struggle that takes place within the railroad car hurtling along its otherwise fixed course.

The problems with the adventures aside, for a retro-game analogy, I think the setting if run as intended would feel a lot like Traveler, which is less focused on exploring unknown locations, and more focused on picking between jobs for various patrons (some shady) that drop the crew into complicated situations with various factions. Even in retro-D&D, hooks consisting of patrons wanting players to do jobs for them are a staple. But so is self-directed exploration of location-based open-ended adventuring sites. The zine gives you tools to do the former, but not so many to do the latter. 

This seems to me like a missed opportunity, since the map and the conceit of the newly opened pneumatic tubes suggest so strongly that one of the pleasures will be exploring the unknown, crawling through tubes and raccoon tunnels to new locations that can be explored for salvage and wonder--and getting their before rival salvage crews. To be clear, it's not that there's anything incompatible with this kind of play in this zine, but it also doesn't do much to help you to do this.

How I Would Use This Zine

This zine could be the foundation for an amazing campaign. Here's the work I would do to lay launch such a game. 

  1. I would steal the coastline from a published map, maybe something by Judge's Guild or any fantasy (or real) map you could find by googling online. I would put a series of ports (maybe 6) on the coast if they weren't there already. Eyeballing the map, I would assign a number of downtimes between adventures that would have to pass before arriving at each port. I would next write three sentences describing each port, and list one adventure opportunity at each. For these adventures, I would simply plop in my favorite adventures. I would definitely use carousing rules, but only for ports, and if I was feeling ambitious, might write up different carousing tables for different ports. 
  2. Since I like dungeon-crawling and site based adventures, I would place a bunch of (ideally free) written site-based adventure locations on the map. Michael Raston's Tower of the Weretoads would definitely fit, and maybe even Pollute the Elfen Memory Water with some heavy reskinning. I would probably use Dyson Logo's Challenge of the Frog Idol for the Toad Hotel location, treating the Toad King as the idol, the troglodytes as Yoo-Hoos, nixies as dryads, and so on. 
  3. I would develop several (probably three or four) rival salvage crews (rival adventuring parties). I would write a short system for rolling each downtime to see what kind of exploration or work they had been doing, if any, and how they had fared. I would use this system to make jobs disappear if they players didn't take them, and also to pressure the players to race ahead to new sites before they were already looted for salvage by other crews. I would be sure to have at least one rival salvage crew work for patrons the party ends up siding against, as a sort of enemy party.  
  4. I would look at all of Gus's HMS Apollyon posts on Dungeon of Signs for further inspiration in general for running a salvage-based sandbox on a giant rotting ship, and for some suitable location and monster writeups.
  5. I would come up with a bunch of starting hooks that would direct players to these different locations, and I would also follow Franck's lead and list a few "jobs" that PCs could take for pay. I would use the NPCs and factions she provides to develop a set of possible patrons at the starting location with opposed interests and schemes.

And then I think we would be ready to go. 


I've decided to adopt a stars system. Five stars is the max.
*         Bad
**        Mediocre
***      OK
****     Good
*****    Excellent

I give You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge **** four out of five stars: it's good. If a quirky campaign setting in a trashbox sounds appealing, where PCs will get hired as laborers to do dangerous jobs, definitely pick it up. It is a zine with a lot of heart, stuffed with cool ideas that fit its distinctive vision. it's well worth the cost. Get it here.