Saturday, 9 June 2018

Review: Veins of the Earth

This is an in depth review or analysis of Veins of the Earth. I am writing this after having DM'd a campaign using it so I am familiar with how it works in play.

Initial Impression

When I first purchased Veins of the Earth several months ago I read through it in several days, totally absorbed in it in a way that was unlike most other RPG product that I've read.  Part of this is due to it's unique writing style. It has a narrative/poetic feel to much of it, gone is the dry disembodied informative tone that most RPGs have. In a way I think this is perhaps it's biggest innovation. Most RPG books are written in a style that is similar to a technical manual or encyclopedia. When they're not written in this manner they tend to be filled with snippets of actual fiction, examples of play, stories set in the world, setting history told in a chronicle style, and other useless fluff. Both these approaches I find lackluster.

Veins does an excellent job writing about things you will actually use in-game, mainly monsters, with an an evocative and engaging style. The text does a far better job of actually portraying an engaging and flavorful setting than most multi-volume fantasy series that I have read. Reading Veins of the Earth was a wholly refreshing experience for me. It turns a cave, a simple hole in the ground, into a whole new frontier. An abyss that transcends it's geologic nature to embody different aspects of time and space, light and darkness, that force you to examine the experience of existence underground. Not just dry game stuff like how would you travel about, or what things are you likely to encounter, but how would it effect you emotionally? Psychologically? Socially? How would the alien nature of the environment really shape it's monsters? And deep time.

In this manner I find the true strength of Veins is that, beyond it's well designed monsters, it gives a good idea of the themes it is trying to convey and how to convey them through game-play. This in turn helps the DM create encounters and things for the players to experience that go beyond their stats and create a sense of shared storytelling.

What You Get

You get a 357 page hardcover book. It is illustrated by Scrap Princess with a ton of art. It has a sewn in bookmark, nice thick pages, excellent layout, and overall very high production values, as often seen in Lamentations of the Flame Princess products.

Overall as an RPG book it's a bit difficult to classify. The first 150 pages, basically half the book, is a very detailed bestiary. The second half contains rules and information on how to run an adventure or campaign in Veins of the Earth.

While it gives a strong sense of setting I would not consider Veins of the Earth a setting book. I consider all of this to it's benefit. The OSR movement seems to have largely done away with setting type books, books that act as encyclopedias on a world. I view this as a good thing. I'm not going to read 300 pages detailing the history of a world and it's places and people, all of which I will probably forget and just make something up on the spot at the table.

The chapters of the book are as follows:

Why the Underworld: 

This chapter is short, only a few pages, but really good for setting the tone and themes that Patrick Stewart is trying to convey. If you like this section chances are you'll like the rest of the book.

Pariahs of the Earth: 

Basically a bestiary. As mentioned before takes up about half the book. The monsters it in are very evocative. Some a little more off the wall than others. However there is enough of a mix of serious, quirky, odd, funny, dangerous monsters that no matter what kind of game you run you'll find some that you'll want to throw at the players. Every DM is probably going to have a different one that they will want to use in their very next adventure and one that they will never use.


Cultures in the Veins: 

These are more like essays on what the main races are in the Veins. They're short and don't really contain much immediately gameable information. People seem to be a bit critical of this. This section does feel a bit less fleshed out compared to the rest of the book but overall it didn't mind me to much in the sense that you'll probably have to adapt the main cultures and races to how you want them to function in your game so this section gives you an impression of them and leaves it up to you figure that out.

Light and Dark: 

This section is gold. Contains rules about the importance of light and how fuel for it functions a currency and other rules that really make the setting different from just a normal underground dungeon. Also written very well where it really gets across how to use the rules to make the players feel like they're in an alien environment.

Encumberance, Exploration, Climbing, and Travel:
Generating the Veins: 

These two chapters mainly about generating the Veins and traveling about in them. Overall this section probably breaks from standard DnD the most where it really attempts to present cave systems as dynamic 3 dimensional organically shaped environments, as apposed to the connected vaulting Styrofoam rooms you see on tv or in movies. It also tries to make all the minutia relating to navigating a cave, climbing, rope, exploring, etc. interesting beyond the standard skill check to see if you succeed on climbing the rope and fall and take some damage if you don't.

Overall I think this is probably the most bold and ambitious section of the book as it departs from the whole standard encounter list of combat/trap/trick/social that seems to embody DnD. After having run a campaign in Veins I have mixed feelings on whether or not it succeeded and will discuss it further in the following section.

Items, Treasure, and Spells: 
Madness and Change:
Appendices:

These sections are similar in the sense that they're all full of little things, spells, items, charts, that are evocatively described and easy to just drop in your game if the players do something unexpected or to create an interesting situation. Some are purely text and lack game statics or detailed information about how to use it in game, but anyone who is familiar with OSR material can probably generate stats or particular effects or how it actually functions in the game on the spot. Overall these sections are a really nice grab bag to pull from and you can tell a lot of work went into making each thing interesting and creative.

How it Plays

I ran Veins for about a 3 month campaign that is detailed here:


I decided to run it a bit like a megadungon. Where the players would awake to find themselves in the Veins of the Earth and wander about it it. Where it would be an endless series of connected caverns.

I started off using the cave generation methods in the book to generate the caverns. I had to drop this after a while as it became a bit too tedious and time consuming. If I had a bit more prep time I might have stuck with it more. What I ended up doing was dropping a handful of dice onto a piece of paper and tracing circles around them. These would be the caverns and then I'd draw lines in between them and using a simple chart to decide if the connecting tunnels would be large or small or what 'wall' they were on. This didn't create as dynamic cave systems as the book does but were a bit more organic than your normal 2 dimensional dungeon.

I found the main problem about running the game is that most of the material in the book falls into two camps:

  1. One where the Veins is a cloistered cautious cave exploration simulator where a lot of emphasis is put on climbing and navigating through a complex cave, where every decision can be the decision between life and death and where there is a fair amount of suspense over managing resources and the minutia of cave exploration. You are alone in the dark with scary shit. Basically like the film The Descent.
  2. The Veins as a alien underworld filled with strange monsters and stranger races.  Where there are societies and cultures and more your typical DnD stuff. Where it's a place for endless strange adventure as the players explore this underground frontier.

I found this to conflict at times where the cave exploration stuff is very slow, methodical, and the suspense comes from the realism which requires a lot of description and work to make climbing and navigating caves seem dangerous and interesting. While the more typical DnD stuff tends to be less realistic, a little more off the wall, and where it's engaging because it's weird and dangerous but you still kind of want to intreact with it anyways.

With the cave exploration stuff the hardest part is the DM has to come up with non-binary consequences and decisions to stuff like climbing up a wall and across a cavern. As otherwise it can become a bit tedious if the main consequence to every cave climbing action is 'you fall and take some damage'. The 'cumulative failure' charts in the book help for this. I don't really know if they have an actual name. They seem to be inventions of Patrick Stewart and I'm really surprised no one seems to have talked about them much. 

You can find an example on page 208. Basically it's a chart that requires a player to make a skill test on every ability stat and if they fail a roll something bad happens, possibly cumulatively. This is a really, really unique way of making skill tests a lot more interesting as it makes them less binary. Where one failed skill roll can lead to six different results and it stops an over reliance on strength and dexterity to simply solve all climbing related tasks. It really shows how exploring a cave can be a mental and emotional test and how there are multiple ways a situation can go wrong and get dangerous very fast.

I almost wish there was more about this mechanic in the book. Kind of how to really use the charts and make your own to really help facilitate climbing and exploring a cave being less tedious or less of a binary slog. If you created some more of them and just used a side view map of an actual cave instead of creating your own you could have a really cool one shot adventure:



Overall I find, while very interesting, the cave generation and exploration material in the book requires a bit of a different mindset and buy-in from the players then your standard DnD. The introduction of the more typical DnD material conflicted with this. 

It all wasn't a huge issue. Just that if I were to run it again, now that I've run it as more of a typical megadungeon, I think it would be fun to run it more as a short one shot. I'd take the above map, make it the lair of a monster form the book, fill it with a few weird items and other things, and reveal parts of the map as the players explore and navigate it instead of trying to describe it to them. In this manner I'd try to highlight the realistic cave exploration stuff in a one shot adventure that I found a bit more tedious in a long campaign. Although this said the stuff that I did use for my campaign was awesome and worked well.

So I guess overall it all plays very well, you just have to be a bit selective about the material in the book. It's like cooking. If you use all the spices all at once it's not going to be as good as if you're selective and tailor the spices to what you want.

Art

Scrap Princess' art style is quite different from your traditional RPG art style. I'm not an art critic so I'm just going to describe it based upon the impressions it made on me: claustrophobic, impressionistic, fragmentary, flowing, dark, scribbled, insane, elegant, unearthly, cramped.

Normally the art of Scrap Princess isn't to my particular taste. It's well done, and I don't hate it, but if you had approached me and told me that it was going to be used to illustrate an RPG book I'd just scratch my head and think, huh, wonder how that is going to work, seems like an odd choice.

But work it does. The art of Scrap Princess is perfectly matched for Veins of the Earth. Very often it's not depicting a in an anatomical manner like you'd see in a encyclopedia. Instead I find it's often depicting the monster as you would find it. That is as if you actually stumbled across it in the dark a mile underground. That scattered terrified impression it makes in the shadows of your lantern, the scattered glimpses you try to relate to others later. In a way the art does a tremendous job of really conveying the themes and emotions of the Veins of the Earth. In this manner it doesn't just depict, but really illustrates the setting.

Conclusion

Overall if I were to describe Veins of the Earth in one word I would say impressionistic.  It's not a book that lays out a lot of information in a dry manner nor a book that delivers you a lot of lore in a chronicled top down manner.

Instead I find most of all it tries to give impressions of things. How particular monsters may be scary and operate on logic that is different from what you'd encounter above ground, how caves are cramped, twisting, and confusing, how darkness can seem alive, how easy it is to die alone underground, how the weight of stone above can drive men mad.

It packages all these impressions up with enough crunchy game material so you can plop them into your game. But overall does very much leave a lot of things up to you. While the information design of the book is very well done, and it's easy to use, I wouldn't particularly call it a prep free book in that sense that it leaves it entirely up to you to decide exactly what your underdark will be like and you will have to be selective and make decisions regarding it before you start play. In this way it might not be the best book for the beginning DM although you could do far worse.

However with it's wealth of creativity, it makes this very easy to quickly imagine how you want your underdark to be. It's literally bursting with ideas and will probably get you excited enough about them that you'll have no problem using stuff and running off on a tangent.


Innovations:
  • The evocative writing and art which gives a sense of the setting and themes and which is packaged together with stuff that the players will actually encounter instead of written in a dry, top down encyclopedic manner that seems to be the standard in the RPG industry.
  • Describing monster stats in a system neutral manner with things like comparing it's AC as chainmail or leather armour etc.
  • Actually telling what kind of loot the monster has in the monster description. This makes each encounter more interesting, a great way to convey lore about the monsters to the players through the items they get when they kill it, and should pretty much become the standard in all RPGs.
  • Those 'cumulative failure' charts that require players to roll on every stat as described above. These are a huge step in the right direction in trying to make ordinary actions, such as climbing across a cavern, more suspenseful and dramatic.

Buy if....

  • You plan on doing anything underdark related ever.
  • Or if you like interesting and engaging monsters. Even if you make no use of all it's other material, it has a ton of interesting monsters you can drop into pretty much any campaign.



Downsides:

  • It's pricey.
  • Will take some prep and a fair amount of thought to run a full campaign or really make use of it's material.


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