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! 


  1. Thanks for the review. Checking it out.

  2. I really appreciate your reviews and value your insight. I really hope to see more like this. Cheers!

  3. I just got it. I will say that the early description of the cult in the book would have fit very well with the rest of the module as you describe it if they had just stopped at "the cult worships a fear goddess and brews potions of fear that they poison the other villagers with to make fear beastie pets." The cult is evil, but in a low key, ruin-everyone's-nights-and-psychological-well-being sort of way. If I run ever run this, that's how I'll probably run them.

    1. I agree! Also Jason Hobbs says that when he ran it, the contrast between cult-space and mystery-woods-space worked in play by emphasizing how different the cult was from everything else, and how, in the setting, it's a recent alien arrival. So, with a few tweaks to maybe remove stuff one's not comfortable running, it might work better than it read to me at the time.