A review of "The Veins Of The Earth" by Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess,
a unique bestiary & setting book for pen-and-paper-and-maybe-skype roleplaying under the earth†
a unique bestiary & setting book for pen-and-paper-and-maybe-skype roleplaying under the earth†
My critical work here is all dumb, bc the fantasy text imagines a reality of play which doesn't exist yet, as far as I can tell. I keep trying to run a game on thursdays but after my last lotfp debacle idk if anyone's interested. I really can't tell if my personality is repulsive or not. I'm paranoid. I feel kinda cave-y underdarky myself and maybe that's what attracted me to Veins.
Because as much as innovation here in Veins there's also some pretty serious player-subversion going on, as is true LOTFP, like in the Anglerliche (fake megavillain designed to bait campaigns... The premise with the Anglerliche is that you have a fake villain bait the players and at the end of the campaign a fish eats them.) It does indeed remind me of old D&D where there would be some ideas included not out of balance but because they were experiments. Besides making things new, the other thing Scraptrick do is experiment..
((The third thing that Patrick at least does is design really over-designed megavillain characters who are all female and impossible to kill and hopelessy romantic and who looove poetry. There's two in this book (Antiphoenix and the Spectre) and then there's the Medusa. The Medusa was a lot of fun to run, though...))
I thought a whole lot about Scrap's art too. The basic thing is a diversity of methods. The work may seem juvenile bc at times it really does employ basic character-sheet doodling. Scrap has called her artwork "haphazard" for this reason (I posit).
Tho it would be a dick post if I said "wow it looks like a character-sheet doodle it must be fucking bad". This is one of those situations where there is something to be said about art. What use is a doodle. Why is a doodle useful? If something looks like a doodle can it be art?
I mean the main takeaway from me that's really genius is that often the experience of staring into a PDF rendering of a Scrap-drawn cave hallway is that my eye picks out new details as it adjusts to the painting. Like adjusting to the darkness of an actual cave. Get that out of a splatpage. And the doodles are good, the diversity of methods create a meta-texture, appropriate you'll admit to such a hobby as ours, where _you_ might doodle on your own fuckin' character sheet... I mean that D&D is always a collage of different arts. But moreso Scrap's work is not pandering, it feels like (in the way say, The Dungeon Master's Guide II does not feel like) a genuine work of art with multiple levels and new things to return to and a non-stupid and also interesting basis of cnxn between the form and the content.
I wish the book was bigger! I really wish this mutherfucker was A4. I want that Player's Handbook feel. Maybe we're getting there. Then again I only bought the PDF so what do I know. I'm just greedy.
Ok now I'm gonna review every monster in the book... termed "pariahs":
Alkalion: actually my favorite pariah. Good environmental storytelling, seems easy and "ready to run": In a cave of fungus and salt lies the scary lion... You branch off from a main tunnel and see a tube of salt... where does it go?
Angerlich: see above in the main review. Also this is obviously not written (exclusively) for the underdark. A fake megavillian with giant fish attached. I told my friend at a bar about this and he got worried.
Antiphoenix: see main review. basically on the edge of "runnable". Very descriptively pricey beautiful phoenix that's like a sexy death bird... a self-insert??
Arachnopolis Rex: A giant fake spider made of little spiders. Cool, but would basically hinge on whether or not you can land that "oh shit it's actually a bunch of spiders!" moment. Which I realize the whole encounter is designed around so idk it's cool that Scraptrick are planning for unique roleplaying experiences... yes...
Archeans: Underground space aliens... roleplayable but boring(?) mbasically these guys would be cool for desperate ppl to find in a crack and have yr players slowly starve to death as they were entertained in a parlor full of fuming noxious gases... but idk the big main middle section describing them is kind of a jerk-off
Atomic Bees: "Hit one with your sword and it goes ‘clang’ and spins away." a good encounter.
Blackfoot Gigaferret: a ferret that hunts people... a good basic encounter, but also tellingly is super op, like a monster specifically designed to kill unaware players before they get a chance to react, so "subversive"... you wake up and get insta-gibbed by a ferret.
Calcinated Cancer Bear: basically as good as the Alkalion
Cambrimen: Patrick's description of this like the makeup of their bodies really is bad. Luckily there's a Scrap illustration to show us what we knew all along: they're just big ol blob people. As with most of the civilized races down in the veins it's designed to give a problematic social encounter with unexpected benefits for those who can roll with it. This one is basically better than the others because I think it's really clear what's going on and really easy and justifiable to make this as frustrating as possible.
Castillian Caddis Larvae: Gamebreaking monster idea which will be inevitably exciting to players (it's made out of magic weapons for you to have). I actually am not excited by the design but obv players will be, so.
Cholerids: Actually one of my favorite pariahs, just 100s of these things crawling around underground, and the writing of what they're whispering is just legitimately good literature...
One thing I should mention: you should really read at least the first third of the supercaving biography "Blind Descent" before you run your game, it really explains a lot of the core concepts (with a lot of the same language) that Patrick uses in the book. Why cave logistics are what they are, why cavers have to climb under waterfalls, what the passage through caves actually looks and feels like: "Blind Descent" is a much better primer than what Patrick conveys, or, to be fairer, really helps fill out the details.
Civilopede: The "banner monster" for the book, I get worried sometimes that when I run these games like I did with Maze of the Blue Medusa that there would be just too many good ideas and everything would seem overdeveloped and it would turn into "see what kind of good ideas Peter has (bought)" rather than whatever rpging is supposed to be. Is it genuinely pushing the genre forward or is it just a treasure trove of good ideas? There is a distinction, and minus an actual application Veins is still questionable to me. I mean I have no idea if the 4D maps are at all practical, all the other reviews basically say this too. The "Civilopede" is a literal treasure trove of good ideas, such that I might just want to have it in a relatively ordinary fantasy setting, so that it can interrupt a boring world. But suffice to say me putting a lid on everyone's imagination is unwise... how will this go?
Cromagnogolem: basically as good as Alkalion or Cancer Bear, just a solid LOTFP monster with the capacity to change your campaign forever.
Egg Dead: I think about these guys all the time.
The Eigengrau: impossible to describe, really fucked up.
Fossil Vampire: I would change things about these, like just minus the valuable organs and teeth, just make 'em Fossil Vampires. Also the backstory is ridiculous, good.
Fungal Amassodile: ok, it's probably worth mentioning at this point that perhaps the fundamental creative method of Scraptrick are puns... they will creep up on you and are difficult to pronounce and are everywhere. Your eyes adjust to the darkness and you see more and more puns. The basis of many monsters are actually puns. It's the *punderdark*
The "Fungal Ambassodile" is an overdesigned campaign-changing monster slash possible antagonist that I would say is just on the edge of "overdesigned" and is a cool idea so I have nothing to say, it's exactly what you were promised when you bought the text
Funginid Slaves: important but I hate the disconnect between the general description and the specific descriptions here and I feel like there's some ongoing pun where Patrick is trying to describe the personalities of various real-world mushrooms without letting us in on it
Gegenschein: you have a simple solution: this guy swoops in and tackles the bigger monster. It's kind of like a joke on your players. It's a giant awful angel-bug. But really the important part is the "improvisation" ability should be something the players can have somehow... they should steal it.
Gilgamash: haha dumb joke whatever
Igneous Wrath: overdesigned hard to describe and stupid to run in one package, is still a cool idea and I'm sure if you like it you'll run it, as I'm typing this I kinda want to
Ignimbrite Mite: :( no
Knotsmen: I first really hated the knotsmen, but I've started to come around. I don't know why but it's like a character race that your players can hate so much that it will be embarrassing and shameful to them. You're supposed to push those buttons. It's their whole point...
Lamenters: squish a bird and pop out a huge bloody oily mess, everything else is pretty disposable, just remember that part
Mantis Shrimp: I don't like this one. This is pretty deep in the barrel of monster ideas, it's an invisible shrimp that will kill you. I feel like we're reading "the monster manual" at this point.
Meanderthals: terrifying archaelogical messes of monsters, maybe hard to convey, an interesting idea if one that's trying to express something fundamentally literary and not inherently relatable
Mondmilch: the "good illustration" of the book, meaning the one which will always catch your eye, every time. The encounter doesn't make fuckin' sense and should just be changed. It's designed to be changed.
Olm: Swim into a sump and see a shitload of floating, lifeless, alien bodies. It's these guys's culture. That's ok, don't explain it, and when you actually meet the "alive" ones they're friendly... and kinda hot ;)
Oneirocetacean: I forget what this one is, and it's probably a pun. Ha ha look at that fucking name. Oh ok it's the nightmare whale.
Panic Attack Jack: one of my personal favorite illustrations (pictured above), also the description of the five-pack P.A.J. is sooo goood
Phantom Hand of Gargas: it occurs to me that Patrick needed to pad out the book with a series of metaphysical psychotrauma monsters, which have effects that can't be quite explained, which tend to interact and break with the usual methods of describing reality. This is one of those
Psychomycosis Megaspore: the preview monster that started it all... basically a good tempate for why these are all good, which is: a weird interesting face with a complex and game-breaking backstory... every monster can, as Raggi says in the outro to Slügs, "potentially change the campaign".
Pyroclastic Ghouls: realllly good imagery, ghouls sauntering upside-down through lava, that's some Fleischer Brothers shit, basically a condensed horror story, reading this is a true pleasure ∑:
Radiolarian: ughhh what the fuck hard to describe and WEIRD TOO WEIRD. this was in Deep Carbon Observatory
The Rapture: idk how much I like how this was implemented. Good that players have the option of calling it up. I've never ran a "fighting inside your mind" kinda combat, do those work well?? All in all I feel like this coulda been simplerly written especially since it's supposed to be a game mechanic.
Scissorfish: I don't really care at this point... yadda yadda
Silichominids: really funny awesome
Sonic Pigs!: overwritten to be quite honest
Spectre Of The Bröcken: see main review
Splinterlads: One of those metaphysical monsters that patrick's doing to push the limits of what roleplaying is I guess
Spotlight Dogs: Good, cool, wildly contests the game's concepts behind "the lume" but O K.
Still-Tor-Men: drop this on your players NEXT SESSION, WHATEVER SYSTEM WHATEVER SETTING why not not hing matters
Stormsheep: I feel like this is the fifth high-concept take on what could just be a normal background creature, do you see how these start to exhaust one? Then again it's a buffet you don't have to eat it all
Tachyon Troll: see under "Stormsheep"
Tetracharcarodron: see "Oneirocetacean" I mean I guess it's a good thing that there are some names which are parodies of how bad/complicated scientific names are. Although naming like that seems inwards-facing and jerkoffy. whatever though humor is good. Actually there's a specific blend of humor in much of the horror of LOTFP, like all of Raggi's work, Pstuart's too. Anyway I remember this one, it's a shark inside a gelatin, again high-concept but something rather attractive and lovely.
Titanskull Hermit Crab: oh man, this one just feels like a missed opportunity. There's not much at all interesting about the actual crab, and it's just got this big 'ol environmental thing, cave of skulls, all of it's kind of boring, which is a shame, because there's potential in the relatively simple concept. Maybe this is a "fixer upper" which the open-ended skull abilities table might imply!
ToRaptoise: I also really love these.
Trilobite-Knight: really the soul of the book, the golden gleam in the murk... I blush when I think of them... we need the Trilobite-Knights in reality
Ultraviolet Butterfly: man I wanna say this is overwritten. Not really, bcuz it's all relevant detail, but like ugghhh. I guess too much other stuff points to this butterfly, like the practices of the Drow, and the butterfly lantern, which is kind of the point I think (a running theses for pstuart's work is that a single detail echoes out and effects everything) but I don't need this.
Zombie Coral: I can't even finish reading this one... exhausting
AND THE CULTURES:
AElf-Adal (drow): First part is throwaway stuff about "nightmare creatures" and second part is just that essay from falsemachine.blogspot.com that everyone loves
Deep Janeen: the good shit. the good shit
dErO: uggg I don't care
...but the pills are a good idea
Dvargir: ok their impulse to work is good because: "you see an empty extremely, insanely ornate city" is a good line to be able to back up with a culture. they're the ones building those... but the rest of it is a little too boring and unoriginal, it's not a passion project like the knotsmen.
Substratals: actually really boring! I mean there's just one central conceit which is cool that if any wizard happens to summon one of these they're in for a surprise, which is that the Xorn is actually Jack Bauer.
also concepting the center of the earth as hyper-dimensional is _great_
Gnonmen: unfortunately so bland. The real issue here is that to get to the meat of who they are you have to get past the fact that their whole deal is they have no personality. The meat is: they have weird and maybe noble values. In my campaign bad things would always be happening to them, they are the nerds in the lunchroom.
wait I forgot the Trogloraptor! It's is really good, and even for being high concept has a classic vibe that's universally understandable. my applause
* * *
this book is scary, b.c. the ideas are insane, and have merit, and it's all unique. I don't know if we're gonna run these in the future or not. It's kinda outside history-- although imagine what a (good) history it will be if we do run it!
Probably the scariest idea: navigating caves... it's hard to map let alone visually describe caves.
†full disclosure: I've communicated with a bunch of the people who worked on this book, to good and bad and middling effect (blocked by Zak, my bad)