Tuesday, July 10, 2012

REVIEW: Weird Adventures

I've had a copy of Weird Adventures for a while now and have started writing a review of it several times, but something has always stopped me. That something is my own inability to describe it concisely without resorting either to banalities or oh-so-clever bunkum: "Putting the pulp back into 'pulp fantasy'!" or "The setting Eberron dreamed it could be!" And yet, those two descriptions, overstated though they might be, do accurately reflect some of the brilliance of Weird Adventures. I say "some," because there's so much in this 165-page book that I still have a hard time getting a handle on all of it. Consequently, this review will be by turns rambling and effusive ("How's that different than most of your reviews?" I hear some of you saying), often both.

Written by Trey Causey of the blog From the Sorcerer's Skull, Weird Adventures is "an exciting RPG setting" that's system-neutral but clearly intended to be used with old school D&D and its clones and simulacra. The book is mostly free of any game mechanics or statistics, but, when it does present them, it adopts Swords & Wizardry-style agnosticism toward those things, like Armor Class, that divide the Church of Old School. This means that, to get the most out of Weird Adventures, a referee is going to need to do some preparation beforehand; this is not a "ready to use" product, though the amount of preparation needed is probably pretty small.

As you've probably already guessed, Weird Adventures draws its primary inspiration from tales of pulp adventure. This is something many games and gaming products have done before, but what sets Weird Adventures apart from them is that it does so to provide a fantasy setting. That is, the world of Weird Adventures is not Earth during the 1930s but rather one that is both similar to and different from it. Its similarities are some broad details -- geography and history -- while its differences are more specific, from names ("Meropic Ocean" instead of "Atlantic Ocean," "Ealdered" instead of "Europe," "Freedonia" instead of "Texas," etc.) to the existence of magic and non-human races. The result is a world that is at once familiar but alien and, in my opinion, a vastly better canvas for fantastical adventure than the typical alternate histories and parallel Earths that plague many prior attempts to produce settings inspired by the pulps.

The book consists of five chapters and an introduction. It's written in a breezy, conversational style and utilizes a two-column layout that's easy to read. Throughout there is art. both vintage and original, that nicely sets the mood, along with "props" -- advertisements, newspaper clippings, maps -- that also contribute to a real sense of place. At the same time, I can't deny that it's a lot to assimilate, in large part because there are enough divergences from our world that, unless one has a good memory, it's easy to assume something remains as it does in our world when in fact it does not. That's not necessarily a problem; Weird Adventures isn't the kind of game product that encourages, let alone demands, a strict adherence to its "canon." But Causey has done such a thoroughly delightful job in presenting his pulp fantastical vision of the 1930s that I'd feel bad about forgetting even small details.

Weird Adventures focuses on the nations of Zephyria (the Western Hemisphere), with a particular emphasis on The Union (the USA), though the lands of Borea (Canada), Zingaro (Mexico), and Asciana (South America) are also treated, if much more briefly. The bulk of Weird Adventures consists of an extended gazetteer of The Union's many regions, from New Lludd in the northeast to southern New Ylourgne on the Zingaran Gulf to Yronburg in the Midwest and San Tiburon in the West. Scattered throughout this gazetteer are the descriptions of unique locations, NPCs, random tables, adventure seeds, and similar inspirational ideas to give players and referees alike a sense of just what you can do with the setting. It's a good approach, I think, though, as I noted earlier, there are few (if any) game stats, so you're left to your own devices in figuring out the effects of bootleg alchemicals beyond the "purpureal ether" given as an example.

An even larger gazetteer (close to 80 pages) is devoted to the City of Empire, more commonly known as simply "the City," this world's version of New York. In addition to maps of the city's five constituent "baronies" -- Empire Island, Rookend, Marquesa, Shancks, and Lichmond -- there are descriptions of 42 unique locales. Many of these descriptions cover not just the basics of the locale but also their history, inhabitants, and ideas for adventures set there. I found this gazetteer even more charming than the previous one, because Causey was able to show us in greater detail how all the various elements of this setting fit together into a whole. Like any good old school game writer, though, he provides lots of examples to spur individual creativity. I wasn't even considering the possibility of using Weird Adventures in any way, but, reading through just its descriptions of its ethnic enclaves, I couldn't help but be inspired. I mean, who wouldn't want to set a hardboiled detective adventure in Little Carcosa?

Concluding the 165-page book is a selection of "Weird Menaces," monsters unique to the setting of Weird Adventures. These are presented in a mechanically minimalist way, but with lots of inspirational flavor. So, in addition to crabmen and gatormen, there are hit fiends, hill-billy giants, lounge lizards, pink elephants, and reds (evil promoters of the diabolical philosophy of "communaltarianism"). Like everything else in this book, it's a fun selection of opponents that draws equally on pop culture, urban myth, and real world history for inspiration. It's good stuff and offers a near-perfect example of how to present monsters that tap into the imaginations of players so that they are more than just lists of meaningless statistics.

If the foregoing makes it sound as if I thought Weird Adventures flawless, you're pretty close to correct. My only substantive criticism is that, by opting for a largely system-agnostic approach, referees are left to their own devices in adapting this material. That's not a big deal for most old schoolers, but it could be a turn-off to some who prefer their game products more "plug and play." On the other hand, Weird Adventures is so cleverly conceived and attractively presented that I doubt many will care about such niggling details as game rules. What Trey Causey has done is give us a sumptuous melange of D&D fantasy, alt-history, Lovecraftian horror, and Smithian weirdness, served up with heaping helpings of myth and legend from every possible source and offered on a plate ripped from the pages of the pulps. I can't praise Weird Adventures enough; it's a superb gaming product and one of the most enjoyable things I've read in many a month. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

 Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're a fan of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century and are looking for a setting that takes inspiration from all their ideas.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in pulp fantasy or gaming in the early 20th century.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review, James. Glad you liked it.

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  2. I completely agree. I really like this book as well.

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  3. I like WA alot. Very fun stuff.
    Anyone into that sort of thing should check out a comic called The GOON as it has a very similar sort of gonzo pulp flavor.

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  4. What is the tech level? Is it all tommy guns & biplanes? I'm assuming because it's systemless that there are no rules for said items.

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  5. Does it deal with the fact that 'fighters' in a pulp setting wouldn't have armour (as seems to be the case on the cover), and that everyone would probably use the same weapons (guns)?

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  6. Hey James, why does this Disqus-thing show the newest comments on top by default?

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  7. I'm interested in this question, as well.

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  8. Christian LindkeJuly 11, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Thanks for the review. I hadn't seen this product and will be jumping to pick it up. Oh...and I just noticed that the cover pays a nice homage to the original PHB cover.

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  9. WA is only a setting, with very general OD&D-type stat blocks for monsters, but no other system information. That firearms exist is mentioned, and that people don't dress like knights in shining armor is demonstrated in the illustrations, but there are no variant rules for "modern" fighters or anything like that.

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  10. I'm not part of any gaming group but I'm a sucker for well written sourcebooks for unique settings. This sounds like it is right up my alley. I'm certainly going to end up ordering a copy of the softcover version of the book.

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  11. Thanks Stacy.

    In that case, maybe it would work better with a non-OD&D system. For example Savage Worlds using modern weapons and at least one magic option, or Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes + Tunnels & Trolls magic.

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  12. This sounds great, and system-agnostic is fine for me.

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  13. Yes, but you can change it by clicking on the word "discussion."

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  14. ""Freedonia" instead of "Texas," "


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dsw9jYU_rJI



    Tex
    (who had to do it)

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  15. I think that Trey really raised the bar with this game. His setting is familiar, yet weird and that hits a very nice spot. I think that this is one of the most innovative ideas to come from the OSR in years.

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  16. I like Weird Adventures a lot, but I don't think saying that "it's the setting Eberron wished it could be" is fair to either Eberron OR Weird Adventures either one.
    Then again, you kinda hedged that comment, so... eh.

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  17. Sounds like it would also be good for playing a Legend of Korra campaign, or similar Twenties- and Thirties-like settings.

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  18. Ooh! Terry and the Pirates!

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