Monday, July 10, 2017

Pre-review: The Dark of Hot Springs Island

Yes, there has been a drought of posts from yours truly.  A long dry season for posts on Artifacts and Relics, as it were.  Listen, when it comes to writing about games, my big priority is making headway on Blackrock.  And it's (surprise!) slow going.  I have to say, writing certain bits is a real drag.  But like some kind of mighty-thewed yawper, I heroically trudge forward.

This is like game writing

But life is not all OSR fantasy adventure setting authoring.  No!  I also read OSR fantasy adventure settings.  You see, I have many interests.

And so this post.  I recently picked up The Dark of Hot Springs Island, and have sort-of read it.  I've basically flipped through it a bunch.  I can't say I've read enough to write a review, but I am comfortable saying I've read enough to write a pre-review, or as some might say, "premature half-ass musings."  So please join me, if you will...

You know how I like to cut to the chase.  So before I even talk about who wrote it and why, I'll say that this is the kind of stuff that makes you think aw fuck, what's the point.  This guy did the shit out of it.  Listen, I still feel really good about where Blackrock is going.  But The Dark of Hot Springs Island is great, inspiring stuff that makes me want to never try to write an adventure again.

Let me rewind for a second.  The Dark of Hot Springs Island is a system-neutral hexcrawl by Jacob Hurst of Swordfish Islands.  It looks like Hot Springs Island is just one hexy island in an archipelago, so we could be in for a bunch more installments if we're really, really...

Aw, who am I kidding?  It will be heroic if Jacob Hurst manages to put even most of the Swordfish Islands.  I know what the resources are like for these indie OSR outfits.  They're entirely powered by one person's possibly-unwarranted enthusiasm, and although Mr. Hurst's enthusiasm is entirely warranted, that tends to be a finite resource.  Alas, I digress.

Even so, just on the surface of it, Hot Springs Island is a truly impressive production: two-hundred pages with excellent maps and decent-to-gorgeous art, layout that's really easy on the eyes, and a drum-tight structure.  I complained about jim pinto's King For A Day, which has all the look of excellent content kept under high-security lock down by an impenetrable concept of organization.  Hot Springs, by contrast, has a ton of content that just empties itself into your head.

Seriously, this spread shows a lot of what I was just talking about

In fact, if you look at the entire Kickstarter for Hot Springs, some of the the content starts to look a bit...excessive.  I'm looking at you, A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island.  I'm going to drop $20 on a player's handbook for this hexcrawl?  I dunno, for an adventure setting that is all about forcing the GM to be creative, I'm surprised to see such a big expansion of what sounds like fluff.

But hey, I can't say for sure, because I didn't buy it.  And I may!  But I have trepidation, and this is only a pre-review, so I can get away with that shit.

Moving right along...anyway, I mentioned that it's well-organized, and what I mean by this is that information seems to be grouped in ways that are useful for both play at the table and for absorbing the important details of the setting and backstory.

There's just a whole lot of content here, and I want to emphasize how easy it could have been to overwhelm the reader.   I don't even know how to count all the factions, because they are each a web of sub-factions, alliances and individual NPCs.  Let's say there are at least half a dozen top-level factions that a party is extremely likely to come into contact with.  If you count all the sub-factions, minor factions, off-the-board factions, minor godlings, ancient monsters, etc., then I can probably recall at least three times that.

And it all hangs together, even if you're not reading in any particular order but just jumping around.  That's...amazing.  It doesn't hurt that the content is gripping and fun and gonzo as all fuck.  I love the fact that elves, rakshasas, efreet, gods and the like seemed to belong to this decadent cutthroat-capitalist multiverse-spanning high society.  It felt very Kirbyesque to me, like you could round a corner to find Zeus and Caliban lounging together in power armor.

Included by necessity

There's a lot of crazy stuff going on with Hot Springs Island.  Perhaps you've heard about The Lapis Observatory?  Apparently, that's just a tiny sideshow in the whole of this zany coastline formed from sixty-degree angles.  And it's reproduced in The Dark of Hot Springs Island in it's entirety (as this hapless author discovered too late).

As far as these things go, Hot Springs is very sandboxy, very hexcrawly.  There are very highly lovely rules for exploring the island - I lavish praise on them because they are so simple and easily ruled upon OSR-style.  There is no plot, which is totally fine.  It's more like a land of hooks.  Like I said before, this is very table-ready, and those hooks should get your players biting in short order.

Basically, it's a game about boars

Now, let's talk briefly about the "dungeons" (i.e. mapped places of interest with keyed locations).  There are twenty-six different keyed maps, each of which has a number of described locations.  What they don't have, in any kind of detail, are encounters.  

Instead, they have something more interesting to some, less interesting to others: tables.  Each such location has three 3d6 tables for content generation; the first is a table describing whatever is currently happening, the second is a list of encounters, and a third is a list of activities and states.  You roll the first table once to generate a theme to help tie the rest together.  Then you roll once on each of the other two tables for each room.  You can end up with something like "1d4+1 Salamanders sleeping" or "1 Spine Dragon fighting 1 Ogre youth."

In case you hadn't guessed, I'm of two minds about this stuff.  I love the sandbox nature, and I think the tables are great and well-designed.  But I miss what comes with a fully-designed "dungeon," which is the way that different encounters can be so well-...designed.  

I mean, take a look at a masterwork like Tower of the Stargazer.  There are so many thoughtful and densely intricate encounters here that you couldn't safely design on the spur of the moment, no matter how inspiring the tables.

But Hot Springs is going for something else, and I respect that.  Jacob Hurst lays it out early:
Pseudonaturalism sometimes gets a bad rap in tabletop games, but here on Hot Springs Island, its purpose is to establish that this world doesn’t need the characters. It has its own rhythm and system, and the adventurers are the intruders.
In other words, the locations are described in detail because, like the real world, the terrain changes slowly.  The occupants, however, are ever-shifting.  So: we roll.  I get it.  These are just the pros and cons that go along with a project like this.  Remember, this is a true sandbox.

This publication has some pretty mechanics, especially considering that it is system-neutral.  There are some rules for exploration and travel that take up half a page and cover everything that's going to be important for a GM (movement rates, visibility, getting lost, exploration and encounters).  The system to generate random map occupants consists of three tables, and it handily provides all the inspiration you need.

Now, this does demand more from a GM than a flip-through the night before game day.  First thing you'll want to do is gather stats for the system you use, and consider those in light of the sandbox nature of the game and the unique aspects of the setting.  That's no mean feat, but of course, that's something you can always tweak behind the scenes, if you really must.

You're going to have to come up with these stats on your own

In addition, depending on what your players do, you may have to roll up a dungeon on the spot.  This isn't too hard, but it can be a lot of pressure for a novice GM who has to bring things to a halt and let the players freely graze as he or she frantically rolls and imagines.  No pressure, novice GM!  Your players are now wondering why you didn't just go with that 5e campaign half of them had heard about...

None of this is a problem for a master GM, and it's a fun challenge for a journeyman GM such as myself (if I may say so).   Hot Springs Island is basically the raw material for an entire campaign.  It could be for any level you like, since the GM has to supply the stats, but if you went with the SRD stats for these creatures, it could easily run from 3rd to 12th.  The Big Bad is an efreet with an army of extra-planar monsters, so it could well go further than that.

On the other hand, your players might cozy up to the efreet, do him a solid, and walk away with a ton of gold at 4th level.  Like I said: sandbox.

Be aware that the material is bracing and adult-oriented.  There are drug-addicted elves (though that didn't end well for them), slavery, several illustrations of bare-breasted women, elven orgies (those did seem to end well), and a bunch of dark situations.  Many of the nereids, for instance, are unwilling concubines of the sort-of Big Bad efreet.  There are monsters that just eat the skins of their prey.  There's body horror and black humor.  I've seen worse, but it's definitely not the cup of tea of some people for all kinds of reasons.

If this is a problem for you then be aware it gets worse

To be honest, this is all stuff that I like, but I recognize that different people have different sensibilities.  Between the content and the structure, The Dark of Hot Springs Island checks boxes that I didn't know I had.  Oh yeah, I am going with that phrasing.  It checks the hell out of them.  This is stuff that I could confidently drop onto my gaming table as it is.  The setting is fun and it sticks to your brain like my old favorite (sigh), Anomalous Subsurface Environment.

That's all a long-winded way of saying that, like an anaconda that has overcome a obese cayman, I'm still slowly digesting this one but, like that anaconda, I can highly recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment