Review of Yoon-Suin, the Purple Land

This is a 324-page book with black and white interior art. The PDF has nicely structured bookmarks although the index is not interactive (not clickable for navigation). The artwork by Matthew Adams is really neat and full of character. The only name that I can find of the author is “noisms“. Who ever he or she is, noisms is a very talented designer.

It begins with 19 or so pages of colorful fiction: a 1st-person narrative about the “Yellow City” by a foreign traveler. I was genuinely surprised by the revelation of two of the locations’ most prominent races. This hobby is typically rife with cliché fantasy peoples, such as elves, dwarves and other “Tolkienisms”, so I knew that I was in for a treat.

Art my Matthew Adams
Art my Matthew Adams

Despite cultural and physiological differences, the peoples of the Yellow City all have three key desires in common: Opium, Tea and Knowledge. These ideas further break away from the usual medieval European tropes found in fantasy roleplaying games. My interest increased with each page turn.

We’re given some descriptions of key details about the city and its surrounding geography. What I like about this section is the aforementioned 1st person narrative. Instead of generic descriptions, we’re given impressions of someone walking through these areas and telling us about them. My only gripe was the overuse of the term “humble author”. In one paragraph of five sentences, I counted five uses of the term. Having an author refusing to use “I” or “my” does make an interesting quirk but I wonder if this could’ve been handled a bit differently. It was repetitive and a bit corny. Otherwise the text is very well written and easy to read.

Each section feels unique and interesting. There’s a chilling passage “paraphrasing” a local’s narrative about several dangers in the jungle of Lahag. Most of these encounters are truly horrific or eerie and I would definitely use some of them in-game as rumors and the like for the PCs. You know, to get them into the mood. Wonderful stuff here and great mood-setting: cool-sounding names, quirky cultural traits, memorable locales and cleverly crafted ancient mysteries worth investigating.

There is, here and there, some mention of some classic fantasy characteristics, but they are fully integrated into the setting and are not typical, much to my relief.

There’s some very cool stuff in here: it gives the reader lots to think about. There are all kinds of bizarre, exotic and creepy locations. We get impressions of all sorts of dangerous and mysterious beings out there in dark, forgotten places or harsh, inhospitable environments. I became quite eager to jump into the meat of the book.

The next section of this book includes instructions on how to use it. We get a single page of step-by-step notes, followed by 6 pages of an example. I really liked this structured approach, especially in such a huge body of work. The whole book feels less daunting to grasp. The author clearly explains the intentions of this product and how best approach the different sections. Very well done.

The author introduces some broad themes or “mysteries” that form the backbone of a campaign set in Yoon-Suin. Cool stuff here.

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Art by Matthew Adams

Next, we get into the meat of the book, the Chapters.

Chapter 1 is about character creation. While the author suggests foreign PCs (so that the characters can truly explore and experience that world for the first time), we’re given background tables, races and even a new class for characters who are natives of Yoon-Suin. This is simple, straightforward and interesting. My only disappointment was the inclusion of the Dwarf race, even if it “feels” a bit different than the usual trope. If and hopefully when I run this, I think that I might omit the Dwarf race because it seems too familiar to me.

Chapter 2 is a bestiary (43 pages). We get nice, short stat blocks, brief descriptions and a sidebar for each to explain where they are most likely found on the map. The entries are sorted alphabetically, but I would have liked to have seen a list index at the start of the chapter. There are no illustrations in this section, which is unfortunate: the artist’s drawings in other places hint at these creatures and the bestiary would have benefited from individual visual treatments. For now, the DM and players are left to picturing these beings with their imaginations: for all I know, this might prove to create a level of weirdness beyond any illustration so it could work.

Except for two entries, the creatures in this bestiary are awesome and original. We get all kinds of giant sea creatures that I’ve never encountered in any monster manuals (so far), but I’m familiar with them from watching nature documentaries. There are entries for some of the mysterious and horrible dangers from the introductory fiction, which was nice to have. All in all a great bestiary, despite the lack of visuals.

Chapter 3 is where things get really interesting.

There’s material covering the Yellow City itself, the suggested core hub of any adventuring party from outside of Yoon-Suin. This is the part that reminded me the most of the books from Sine Nomine Publishing: a toolkit to create your own city with practically system-agnostic tags. There’s wonderfully laid out tables and charts for generating and customizing NPCs, locales and conflicts. Most of it is organized by Factions and/or Locations (the two are often intertwined). It all works quite well.

There are also some quick n’ dirty tables to create general NPCs, rumors and hooks, random locations, encounters (the two are paired) and city quarters or neighborhoods. All of it shares the same consistent feel and helps to build up the promised characteristics of the Yellow City.

The chapter then includes tables to generate locations and encounters outside of the city itself but close enough to be explored without going too far. The Lairs were particularly fun, each with a column for “Twists”.  The author even included some sample hex contents: all of which have very imaginative encounters and descriptions. They have far more depth than just “2d4 monsters” type of encounters that I’ve seen in other RPG supplements.

The part covering  “Old Town” has a detailed process for running exploratory adventures. It is simple enough, but with enough variables so that well-prepared PCs will feel a difference compared to those who just rush in carelessly. As usual, these tables cover things like random encounters (usually antagonists), special sites, some pre-made special sites if you don’t want to bother randomly piecing them together on the spot, all manner of NPCs, ruins and a “Getting Lost” table which is far cooler than it sounds. There is a great deal of material in here: it is actually surprising to me how much content has been squeezed into this book so far and we’re only halfway through!

Nearly all of these tables are prefaced with brief suggestions or instructions by the author: another good move. I’m liking this product more and more.

In all honesty, you could run an entire campaign just within the Yellow City and the Old Town. I’m very impressed.

Chapter 4 is about the surrounding wilderness and “Hundred Kingdoms” beyond the Yellow City.

The simple way in which the DM can create individual “Polities” (organized societies) reminds me a lot of the toolkits in Dungeon world for creating Steadings. The best part is giving each community its own “Issues” and “Assets”, each with its own hooks, suggested NPCs and general “things” (inspirational tags).

The rest of this section is very similar, in terms of structure, to Chapter 3: lots and lots of tables to create factions, locations, NPCs, rumors, adventure hooks and endless places to explore and interact with.

One part stood out: “the Ghosts of Lahag” which allows the DM to generate interesting and unique haunting spirits. I liked those two pages enough that I’m sticking them into my D&D monster manual for the ghost entry.

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Map by Matthew Adams

Chapters 5 and 6, like its predecessors, are extremely rich toolsets for creating huge and diverse settings. There’s an almost overwhelming amount of usable content here and it would take forever to go over it all here. I was truly amazed at the sheer amount of content in these four chapters.

The PDFs bookmarks are a crucial asset to navigating this book: it does not feel disorganized, just very, very dense.

The Appendices provide tables to handle setting-wide subjects, such as poisons, opium, teas, fortune telling and notes about language. A few highlights:

  • Opium: their color, effect(s) (eg: deadens fear, enhance senses, memory loss) and means of ingestion (taken into the bloodstream by smearing it on the sting of a Giant Bee instead of a syringe)
  • Specialist Teas: how to prepare (eg: boiled inside monkey skull) and side effects (eg: aphrodisiac)
  • Useful Worms, Arachnids and Insects: useful creatures that replace typical domesticated work animals typical to fantasy settings
  • Magical Tattoos: risky, but with a chance for enchanted magical boons

…and lots, lots more. Seriously, even the Appendices are dense with cool material. Most of the content in this section will gain a permanent place in my DM binder.

The Maps section is also very well done: each includes a hand-drawn illustration (perfect for player hand-outs) as well as a clear, full-color, computer-generated hex grid (for the DM’s reference: each tile is numbered so it’s ready to be pre-populated with encounters before a game session).

Summary

This is probably one of the most impressive gaming supplements (let alone campaign settings) that I’ve ever come across. In my opinion it stands up with works by Kevin Crawford (eg: Stars Without Number and Silent Legions) and Zak Smith (eg: Vornheim and A Red and Pleasant Land). I feel overwhelmed by the incredibly vast amount of rich and flavorful content. There is a plethora of re-usable material for virtually any campaign you’re running, even if it doesn’t take place in Yoon-Suin.

My only gripe is that I wish there were more illustrations: they’re awesome and this setting’s material begs for more artwork.

I can’t recommend this enough: this is a must-have for any DM or game designer. It is a fantastic work.

You can find this product on DriveThruRPG.

Review of the 5e DM Screen

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The DM Screen is glossy, full-color (on both sides), with 4 panels. Each panel is about 8.5″ x 11″ and in a landscape orientation.

The following is a quick review, but I won’t explain every single table on the screen (not sure if I’d get in trouble with WotC?).

The 1st panel has a bunch of tables for quick n’ dirty NPC creation. Very basic, tags for things like Ideals, Bonds, Flaws and a name generator. That last part allows name creation with 2 or 3 syllables. Pretty neat: could be used to come up with names of places, magic items and geographical features. However, if your campaign isn’t set in a generic fantasy world, it won’t be that handy. In that case, I’d grab a sticky-note with a Name table from something like Stars Without Number and cover that part with more relevant material. The bottom left corner of this panel is devoted to some artwork. This can be used for inspiration or it’s space for your own sticky-notes. Either way I’m happy.

The 2nd panel outlines Conditions. These are just like the ones in the Player’s Handbook (cute sketches included). Very handy: I love conditions.

The 3rd panel has a few more Conditions, just like the 2nd panel, and the rest has a bunch of catch all useful tables for things like Cover, a Skill list and setting DCs. Not bad, generally it’s all useful info.

The last panel has tables for travel, encounters and basic guidelines for suitable damage ranges for different character levels. Again, useful generic stuff. Although my peers were not impressed with the Something Happens! and Quick Finds tables, I love them. Sure, there’s some cliché stuff in them, but they could help a DM when they’re uninspired or stuck. Like the 1st panel, the last one has a chunk of artwork on it (almost a third of the panel is art). Again, I like it because it’s inspiring (images of giant monsters smashing towns always are for me) and because it’s room for my own notes and campaign-relevant tables. Room for more sticky notes!

Overall I’m very pleased with this product. It has hit all the right notes for me:

  • Elegance (breathing room: it isn’t too crowded)
  • Utility (I can see myself frequently checking all of these tables)
  • Customizability (the extra empty space can be filled with my own material)

For DMs wanting margin-to-margin tables for just about everything: skip this one. Make your own.

For more casual or improvisational DMs who care less about rules-minutiae, I’d suggest googling some photos of this product and see if it might be for you. I won’t post any images here in case of some sort of copyright law.

Related Links

Review of A Red and Pleasant Land

A Red and Pleasant Land is… a great deal many things. It’s an art-book, with gorgeous illustrations throughout. It’s an art-piece, with beautiful binding, paper texture, rich colour and even has a silky ribbon-bookmark. It is a campaign setting for a role-playing game, with a unique, bizarre and yet familiar environments full of unique characters. It is a sandbox, with countless places to explore, strange characters to interact with and frightfully dangerous (and usually insane) antagonists to meet (or avoid). It is a resource for Game Masters, full of fascinating random tables to create endless locations, dungeons, creatures and people. It’s also immensely fun to simply pick up and flip to a random page to read or gaze at the illustrations.

This product is a great example of how a gaming supplement can be more than just its text content. The book itself reflects its material and setting: it has an elegant yet slightly mad look and feel, just like a Victorian novel about high society vampires or bloodthirsty queens. In other words, handling the book and reading the pages immersed me into the world that its author created.

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The author, Zak Smith, is an incredibly imaginative and creative person. While he is seen as a controversial or confrontational figure within the gaming community, his contributions are, without a doubt, worthy to the hobby. Regardless of one’s opinions of this author, I’d strongly recommend that folks give this book a chance.

The material is roughly split into two halves: descriptions of the setting’s locations, creatures and characters and then many pages of richly detailed random tables and tools for GMs to invent and create wonders.

There are some very witty things in this work. While many of the standard Wonderland tropes are included, they’re handled in really clever ways. I won’t go into detail, because I feel that these are to be discovered by the reader: it’s part of the charming experience of reading this book.

A Red and Pleasant Land is one part Through the Looking Glass and one part Hungarian/Romanian vampires. This happened to be a happy coincidence to this reviewer, as I happen to be in the process of writing a campaign set in a location that is based on 17th century Transylvania. This work just happened to be right up my alley, but I’ve read and reviewed several rpg campaigns lately and so I feel that I can attempt to be critical of elements that I dislike or that I feel are “off”.

While this is officially a supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and is, by default, compatible with OSR games such as Labyrinth Lord, I felt that this could easily be used with any edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Any rules or stat blocks are minimalistic and easy to adapt. I actually look forward to running it myself in the recent fifth edition of D&D and maybe, someday, in Dungeon World.

When I GM this, I plan of covering the gaming table is a feverish mess of props including: a deck of cards, a set of Tarot, chess pieces and, of course a chess board for any combat encounters. I’ll perhaps serve blood-red tea…

I’ll have to keep this brief as it is the day after Christmas and I wish to be with my family and away from my computer. Once again, I whole-heartedly recommend a Red and Pleasant Land for any enthusiast of role-playing games, Lewis Carroll, vampires, old-fashioned books or even simply art lovers.

The author’s blog (sometimes NSFW)

You can go buy it here!

BONUS LINKS: Alice Character class conversions for other games:

 

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