… and where porn stars play adventures too brilliant for a mortal mind to conceive without lapsing into madness. Or something. In case what you read up to here is naught but gibberish to you: This is about two particularly brilliant old school D&D roleplaying books authored by an individual called Zak Sabbath. He is an RPG blogger, artist and adult performer resident in LA.
It’s not like the OSR (Old School Renaissance, the rise of as-in-the-80s D&D-style tabletop RPGs) is particularly known for genius. To be honest, it’s rather known for cheap outmoded dungeon crawls that are supposedly better than cheap modern dungeon crawls because the monsters are somewhat edgier and the player characters die more easily. Well, if you’re familiar with the heavy metal scene: OSR is to roleplaying games what trve black metal is to metal music. I don’t mean that as a negative, by the way. You don’t always need genius. Cheap dungeon crawling doesn’t necessarily mean boring or bad dungeon crawling … also edgy monsters and dying easily can be insanely entertaining! Which is to say, I do enjoy listening to extra shabby black metal of the trvest old-skool-witch-kvlt-kill-all-posers variety from time to time (even though I don’t partake in the juvenile fake misanthropy elitism that usually comes with it).
But sometimes there is black metal that is both old school and whatever true ist supposed to mean aswell as progressive, artful and the fruit of musical genius. To me that’s bands like Secrets of the Moon, Triptykon/Celtic Frost, Mantar or Cobalt for example, that stand out in between all the nice-but-not-groundbreaking no-posers-allowed bands like Darkthrone, Immortal, Urgehal or Nargaroth. Okay, that was a lot of black metal up to now for a post entirely unrelated to metal. However, my point is: To me Zak Sabbath stands out in the OSR scene, like those bands up there do in the black metal scene. Those bands are sometimes considered post black metal so let me expand this allegory and call Zak’s work post-OSR. (Maybe you think that sounds like pretentious hipster nomenclature. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t care.) The books that I’m talking about are Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and A Red & Pleasant Land (R&PL) (see image above title). Which means I’m short of his and Patrick Stuart’s recently released artsy Megadungeon Maze of the Blue Medusa, which I’m still waiting on to be delivered and which I’m pretty sure I’ll also write an instant jizz-in-my-pants fanboy blog post about as soon as I’ve read it, maybe refereed it. The two titles I own are both part of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) product line, a pretty rad Red Box D&D style game designed by James Raggi. The most important thing about LotFP is not the game itself though, but all the modules and setting books that got this name on their cover. It’s easily the best and the most original hoard of treasures the OSR has to offer, period. And probably one of the most noteworthy collections in tabletop RPGs in general.
So what makes Zak’s books so special? Well first of all, they are not cheap dungeon crawls, but original beyond compare. They are hyperfunctional. They are absurdly beautiful. I mean really, do you see that red cloth-bound gold-printed gem up there? The Illustration on the cover? The book is filled with that stuff. Zak is a renowned artist, with works on display in major museums and galleries, like the NYC Museum of Modern Art.
He’s an artist who paints whatever the fuck he likes, not what he’s contracted to paint, and that makes a profound difference. It’s like the book is littered with this doodles and scribbles and blotted masterworks that seem to casually ooze out of his wonderful mind and shape a world that you truly couldn’t have come up with by yourself. A hellish transsylvanian wonderland (as per Lewis Carrol) in the case of R&PL, filled to bursting with kafkaesque mindfuck and bizarro challenges. This “kafkaesqueness” seems to be a recurring theme in Zak’s adventure settings by the way, and it’s actually a good example of the “hyperfunctional” point I made earlier: Kafkaesque situations are basically pretty handy referee material, because you don’t have to care so much about everything making sense anymore. You can have anything happen anytime and it can be as inconsistent as you like, it will never feel inconsistent because the characters not being able to really understand whatever the fuck is going on is part of the theme. Let me just quote the part on how creatures behave in Voivodja (the vampire-ridden wonderland from R&PL) (Please skip this list and be wary of spoilers from here on if you intend to experience Voivodja as a player):
- Offense taken is inversely proportional to offense meant.
- (Corollary of 1) Real violence, oppression and injustice are ignored or purposefully misunderstood (though inhabitants do fight back when directly attacked). Minor accidental or imagined breaches of ettiquette are met with violence, oppression and injustice.
- In all situtations (including trials), tangents are treated as more important than the purported purpose of the conversation.
- Everyone is difficult.
- No-one is unalterably hostile.
- No-one can be made to understand anything.
- Information creatures provide is usually accurate.
So basically interacting with NPCs in Voivodja is like trying to have a discussion on the internet. Completely fucked up. It’s more fun though, because the characters actually get to kill the trolls. Only that there’s no trolls, there are vampires and their freakishly original minions. We’re talking as original as giant corpses, strapped onto horse-wagon-thrones with sawed open heads which are filled with seawater, so that a fish-vampire can bathe in there and pilot that semi-revived hulk like a giant siege weapon. It repeats spells it’s pilot casts and prophecies the fortunes in battle. This is not the craziest thing you will find in this book, trust me. And rest assured that the vampires are not just Monster Manual excerpts, it’s classical Bram Stoker tradition finely diced, well salted, set on fire, thrown into a kettle with the Necronomicon and a copy of Alice in Wonderland, then painted onto these pages for you to kill player characters with. There’s also this Looking Glass thing where there are two versions of the land: The War Side, where all the mad fun takes place, and the Quiet Side where stuff ist also slightly weird but in general it’s the “normal” version of Voivodja. Those two sides are connected via mirrors, as in all reflective surfaces are portals where your reflection is actually your twin from the other side of the Looking Glas. I’m playing with this idea that I referee a group through a slightly altered I6 Ravenloft which then turns out to be the Quiet Side of Voivodja and then it’s over to the real vampire lords or something. Got to think that one through proplerly, but sounds fun.
Vornheim is much tamer in terms of outlandishness. But it definitely has the Kafka thing going on. Here it’s superstitions that the citizens adhere to, because in the past centuries the rulers of this city made all kinds of strange pacts with demons and gods and you name it. It’s too much to cite in its entirety, but some examples include:
- Blunt weapons are forbidden to clerics, they’d rather you carry sharp steel that kills properly because all else would be hypocrisy.
- Cows are considered indolent and undesirable, whover brings a live one into Vornheim will lose a shoe whithin the week.
- In the south-eastern district, when no-one laughs during an execution, everyone present will lose a family member within the year. (Therefore the constabulary goes to great lengths to devise humorous methods of execution.)
- If a wolf sits upon the throne, all men will weep, the moon will darken, and all children will turn aways from their parents.
- Pigs must be present during all trials.
And so forth. You see: Fun times to be had in Vornheim. Aswell as in R&PL this book also contains some (though not as many) splendid and also hyperfunctional adventure locations. In that regard hyperfunctional means: map, map key, stats and general advise on what to do during play so everyone’s having a blast the entire time. That’s all there is in these book’s “dungeons” and that’s all you’ll ever need.
That, and random tables. Random tables might not be the revelation from the OSR gospel and they have been a part of RPGs since the very dawn of the hobby. But it’s different when it’s exactly the right random tables, done exactly right, put together so they complement each other perfectly and devised so that throwing a few dice around solves any problem that a halfway decent referee could possibly run into while following the rest of the book’s guidelines, tips and contents. Let me just demonstrate:
PCs traverse Vornheim at night (hypothetically), I decide something should happen and roll on the encounter table.
A nice hobo lady puts the city watch on the PCs, awesome. So how many guards is it? Well you create them by throwing a d4 on the book cover (underneath the jacket) of course.
In case you’re wondering, thats four guards with 8 HP and an AC of 16. So what do the players do? Maybe involve onlookers. Say theres d4-1 citizens around (just so that there’s an option of “none”). Rolled a 2 so there is one onlooker. Who is that? Well here comes the city NPC table.
Look there, Ezerbet the Harsh, half-elven diplomat and witchfinder. (On this table, aswell as many others, you could of course roll on every column independently.) That ought to be fun. Chaos ensues, PCs want to escape in nearby building. Throw some dice at the book.
Seems like there’s a clockmakers workshop, a granary, a livestock dealers venue and a tavern in this street. Seems fairly obvious that the PC will choose to slip into the tavern, as the other buildings would likely be locked up at night. Of course there’s a taverns table.
We started with “PCs traverse Vornheim at night” and zero prep. We are now fleeing from guards, falsely(?) accused of witchery, into a tavern where people are having a boxing match while other people lurk and probably intend to kidnap the PCs in order to force them to fight in gladiator matches. We got there literally just by throwing some dice at this book. There may be no spell list in this book, but this… this is RPG magic. Real magic. Probably just great game design, but as a fan that was just recently touched by this, I’m still intoxicated and capable only of speaking of these books in superlatives.
Also a word about gender representation and the like. Groan all you like, it’s a subject worthwhile to discuss. Zak has had some trouble with people accusing him of misogyny, homo- and transphobia among other things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who took just a few minutes to look around his blog would find that his regular gaming group is as diverse and inclusive as a gaming group can possibly be. His books reflect that, they contain and display characters of a wide variety of genders and ethnicities and the worlds Zak Sabbath creates are quite naturally devoid of any heteronormative constraints!
In conclusion I want to go full circle back to true black metal. Zak’s current project seems to be a setting book that manifests the hateful ice covered wastes as often sung about by bands like Immortal in the shape of an adventure location for old school tabletop roleplaying! Rejoice! Anticipate!