Monday, August 23, 2010

REVIEW: Weird New World

Weird New World is the second adventure module included in James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Intended for characters of levels 4-7, it's an adventure intended, like Tower of the Stargazer, to serve as an introduction and model for novice players and referees, this time not of a dungeon but of a wilderness area. Consequently, Weird New World is much less straightforward, being more of a "framework," to use Raggi's words, rather than a completely ready-to-run scenario. It's in this that I think both the module's virtues and vices can be found.

Weird New World is a 28-page staplebound booklet. Thankfully, it returns to the "classic" Raggi layout: two columns of dense text with most illustrations filling an entire page. The interior black and white artwork is by Kevin Mayle and is quite moody and effective. Mayle's cover piece is a little less so but I think that has more to do with its being in color than any technical flaws on the part of the artist. The cover itself is detachable and unfolds to reveal a large hex map of the northern region where Weird New World takes place. There are also two smaller maps of locations keyed on the hex map. All of these maps are clear and useful, the hex map especially so, as it shows not only terrain features but also climatic zones. I should also note that I found the module's title on the cover a little difficult to read, because of its placement. It's a small point, admittedly, but worth mentioning nonetheless.

Because Weird New World is a wilderness module, it lacks even the thin plot that many such products possess. That's a perfectly reasonable approach and certainly a traditional one. I have no complaints about this myself, but, as an introductory scenario intended for beginning players and referees, I'm not sure it was the best one. Consider that The Isle of Dread, a similarly introductory wilderness adventure module, provided some structure for its contents. For that matter, so did the recently-reviewed A Trick on the Tain, which also coincidentally takes places in the frozen north. As an experienced referee, I don't need such structure but I imagine that novices would and it's for them that Weird New World was written.

That criticism aside, the module is nevertheless full of cleverness and imagination. Great emphasis has been placed on the effects of weather, with simple rules and guidelines for determining weather conditions and their severity. Similar care is shown to random encounters, which highlight not only the dangers of the far north but also its oddities, such as desperate whales trapped in the ice, uncharted islands, shipwrecks, and even living aurorae. Raggi once again demonstrates his inventiveness, providing plenty of fuel for exciting events as the characters explore the boreal wilderness of Weird New World.

The keyed encounter areas of which there are 40 are a mixed bag. Many of them are well done, providing just enough information and ideas to let the referee develop them further as he sees fit. Others are fleshed out in greater detail, right down to maps with individual encounter areas of their own. Others still consist of just a paragraph or two of suggestive prose. Taken together, Raggi succeeds in presenting a stark, unforgiving environment, filled with danger and mystery. However, there are occasions where I think the weirdness of certain areas, most notably one of the two fully-detailed ones, is overdone and to no good purpose. Raggi is justly praised for his ability to conjure up "dread of outer, unknown forces," in the phrase of Lovecraft, and Weird New World is full of such moments. What it lacks, though, is a strong enough counterbalance of normalcy, places and people where things genuinely are what they seem.

The weirdness in Weird New World is thus overpowering at times and, while some will no doubt argue, perhaps Raggi himself chief among them, that that's the whole point of the module, I'm not convinced that this had to be so. Indeed, I think the module might have been better if its weirdness were less extensive and inexorable. As presented here, the weird is so ubiquitous that it could become tedious -- "Ho-hum, another abandoned shrine/castle/cave/ship that fills our souls with unease and threatens our bodies with death." I don't mean to be flippant; Weird New World is a good wilderness adventure and one that's got lots of little touches of which I approve wholeheartedly, like the ancient dwarven oil rigs and the frozen stonehenge. Any one of these things things could easily have served as the basis for an adventure in itself and that speaks volumes about Raggi's ability to elicit creativity in others, but, taken together, I found all the weirdness overwhelming at times, but I admit that's a personal criticism and not necessarily a knock against the module itself.

A more damning criticism, I think, is that it fails as an introductory module. Unlike Tower of the Stargazer, there's very little in the way of referee advice or suggestions. Newcomers might therefore be unsure of what to do with such an open-ended and structureless module as this, especially when most of the encounter areas demand extensive elaboration by the referee before they can be easily used in play. Were Weird New World not written with the novice in mind, I don't this would be a problem and I'd probably be cheering at Raggi's willingness to offer up such an "unfinished" module for our delectation. So I find myself in the difficult position of saying that Weird New World is a good, if flawed, wilderness adventure module that I like a great deal, even as I must also admit that one of its biggest flaws is that its intended audience will probably find it difficult to use.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for an unusual wilderness module that demands you build upon the author's own work in order to use it fully.
Don't Buy This If: You don't like wilderness modules and/or prefer that your modules be more "ready to run."

9 comments:

  1. Great review - I've been trying to get a handle for some time on what is meant by the "Weird Fantasy" description of the game. Based on your review, I'm starting to think it's sort of a vague Lovecraftian flavor. I'm looking forward to your reviews of the rest of the boxed set to get more of an idea about how James Raggi presents the "weirdness" aspects.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Personally, I'm a bit of a tragic case. I've never actually picked up a fully stocked old-school wilderness adventure in any form, whatsoever, and have no idea how they play! Still, I'd like to give some minor props to the otherwise scatterbrained Keep on the Borderlands, for sticking in its Hermit. Why is there a hermit in the northern woods? Why does he have such an impressive cache of magic items? He's just there, completely mundane, and notably not being a den stocked full of monsters like 80% of the Caves of Chaos and the two wilderness monster camps.

    Although, to be honest, I've never seen anyone actually FIND him.

    ReplyDelete
  3. James, I must preface this post by noting that I have not seen Weird New World. That said...

    1. Perhaps Raggi intends for the 40 encounter areas be the 40 weird places on the map, while the rest of the area on the map is relatively mundane (polar bears, seals, etc.)? Perhaps Raggi felt it wise to do the hard parts for us and didn't waste space with encounters like "3 polar bears (AC 14, HD 9, hp 45, 38, 11, #ATT 3, D 1-4/1-4/2-12) lair here. They are a mated pair with a cub".

    2. When my friends and I were new to D&D, we didn't need any plot. We'd take one look at a D&D map and say, "Cool! Let's explore it!" We never needed inducements to explore a fantastic D&D world.

    ReplyDelete
  4. 1. Perhaps Raggi intends for the 40 encounter areas be the 40 weird places on the map, while the rest of the area on the map is relatively mundane (polar bears, seals, etc.)?

    I think you misunderstand my point about "normalcy." I'm not expecting him to write up every polar bar lair or volcanic steam vent in the North. However, I think, especially in an adventure geared toward novices, that it would have been nice if we got a few more straightforward monster lairs, settlements, and points of interest. He provides some and I appreciate that, but not enough for my taste. Much like People of Pembrooktonshire, I think the plethora of weirdness ultimately undermines some of his best ideas by making them seem like "more of the same" rather than the remarkable things they are.

    2. When my friends and I were new to D&D, we didn't need any plot. We'd take one look at a D&D map and say, "Cool! Let's explore it!" We never needed inducements to explore a fantastic D&D world.

    I don't expect a "plot." The Isle of Dread didn't have a plot but it did provides way of introducing the island to the PCs, just as Raggi's own Tower of the Stargazer did. Again, it's not a matter of my preferences so much as the fact that Jim has offered this up as an introductory wilderness adventure and, given how keen he is on tutorials, I don't think there's enough of that in this module.

    ReplyDelete
  5. LoTFP seems to be making a big splash. My FLGS tried to sell me it when I visited yesterday and asked about OSR material for my OSRIC campaign. I noticed that Labyrinth Lord was placed in alphabetical order with the main professional RPGs, LoTFP got a 'highlight' position with the 4e stuff, and other OSR stuff like Swords & Wizardry was in the 'Indie' ghetto - alongside Spirit of the Century, for some reason.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It might miss the mark as a complete adventure location for beginners but it scores highly as an example of how to create your own wilderness areas. That, coupled with the fact that it's a thoroughly good read is enough to get me donning my winter woollies.

    I particularly liked the literary and pop-culture references (especially 'From Another Sphere').

    I also find there are enough 'less Weird' places too - the native lodges and trading forts are useful 'stable' locations. Also, since each hex is 24 miles across, there's a long time between drinks so-to-speak.

    Having said that, a Weird FRP campaign of one Weird Tale after another would be tough to swallow. It would create the situation Raggi seeks to avoid - a world in which so much is 'fantastic' that everything becomes mundane) I would be trying to shoe-horn in a few traditional adventures along the way.

    However, top-notch review as usual! Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you for this review. These types of "sandbox" style modules are exactly the sort of thing leading me gradually back into the Old School style of play.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Having said that, a Weird FRP campaign of one Weird Tale after another would be tough to swallow. It would create the situation Raggi seeks to avoid - a world in which so much is 'fantastic' that everything becomes mundane) I would be trying to shoe-horn in a few traditional adventures along the way.

    That's my real issue with the adventure, I think: it gives the impression that a Weird FRP campaign is an interminable succession of bizarre and otherworldly adventures without anything more "traditional" in between. FWIW, this is the same problem I have with horror RPGs. I find they work beautifully as one-shots or short campaigns, but they're much harder to sustain over the long haul, precisely because, after a while, there's not much horror in knowing that the next adventure will also be about some supernatural menace that needs to be overcome.

    ReplyDelete
  9. FWIW, this is the same problem I have with horror RPGs. I find they work beautifully as one-shots or short campaigns, but they're much harder to sustain over the long haul, precisely because, after a while, there's not much horror in knowing that the next adventure will also be about some supernatural menace that needs to be overcome.

    That's a really interesting insight, and it helps to explain my COC group's lack of interest after the past three years or so. We took a break from D&D to let someone else referee a CoC game, and sadly, the referee is the only guy who is really into it. The rest of the group seems bored with the whole thing, which is really too bad, because at the beginning they were all keyed up to play. I think part of the problem may be what you explain, above. It seems to fit with what I've noticed this group going through.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.