Saturday, 2 September 2017

Almost a review: Veins of the Earth

I'm sure that most people who reads this blog is already aware of Veins of the Earth, Scrap and Patrick's long-awaited book on exploring the Underdark and dying horribly in a cave. It won two silver awards at the Ennies. Many of you have probably read it already. But I've been away a lot recently, and I've only just got around to it, OK?

The cover really tells you everything you need to know.

Reading Veins was a bit of an odd experience for me, because I'd read so much of it before on Patrick's blog. The Knotsmen are here, and the Cancer Bears, and Gilgamash, and the Meanderthals, and Patrick's unforgettable takes on the derro, duregar, and drow - although those three have all been renamed, becoming the dErO, Dvargir, and Aelf-Adal, respectively. If, like me, you've already read your way through most of the False Machine archive, then what you're getting here is essentially a cleaned-up and expanded version of the same material, plus lots of new art by Scrap Princess and some actual game mechanics - although this last part seems to be a bit of an afterthought, and doesn't always fit the descriptive text. (I'm pretty sure a bus-sized flying psychic sperm whale should have more than 50 hit points!)

Fire on the Velvet Horizon got by just fine without monster statistics, and I'm not sure how much value they really add here; even the book seems to waver back and forth on this, giving full stats for the Civilopede, which no-one is likely to fight, but no mechanical information on the nightmare magic of the Aelf-Adal or the technology of the Dvargir. It's also all properly laid out rather than just being in single-column blogpost format, which makes a real difference for the more complicated stuff like the detailed climbing rules. I still can't imagine using all those climbing rules, but if you want a detailed way to model climbing cave walls within an OSR rules framework, then Veins of the Earth has totally got you covered.

Scrap and Patrick's Underdark has always been very different to the standard D&D version. Many D&D Underdarks pay only lip service to the fact that they're actually, y'know, underground: in most of them the caverns are huge, the ground is flat and level, the food supplies are abundant, and the ecologies and societies are pretty similar to the ones on the surface, with kings and queens hanging out in their underground palaces while serfs and slaves labour in the fungus-fields. (Sometimes they're not even dark: isn't the Underdark in Baldur's Gate II illuminated by glowing purple crystals, or something?) The Veins of the Earth are much more like actual caves: spaces are claustrophobic, movement is three-dimensional, surfaces are uneven, and hunger and darkness are omnipresent. Veins accordingly spends quite a lot of time discussing encumbrance, starvation, illumination, hypothermia, and, yes, climbing, in order to emphasise just how hostile underground environments really are. It spends a lot less time talking about why anyone would ever want to go into them in the first place.

Somewhat paradoxically, the fact that the Veins draw so heavily on the ecology and geology of real-world cave systems makes them seem much more weird and alien than the more purely fantastical Underdarks of most D&D worlds. Despite this, however, I feel there's a tension in Veins of the Earth between Patrick-the-caving-enthusiast and Patrick-the-weird-fiction-writer. The former wants to insist on caves as desperately resource-poor environments in which movement is difficult and food and light are scarce and fantastically valuable, but the latter keeps filling them with giant monsters and elaborate underground civilisations. Sometimes that tension is highly productive: I really liked the mention of how, in emergencies, the elite and military castes of underground cities will simply eat the rest of the population (and then rewrite all the records to remove any mention of it having happened), and some of the monster ideas make good use of their environmental context. The Toraptoise, for example, is a creature with an ultra-slow metabolism which normally spends years patiently licking lichen off walls, but if presented with a chance to kill and eat something big it goes into a hyperactive killing frenzy, burning off decades worth of calories in minutes - the catch being that once they frenzy, they then have to kill and eat their prey, otherwise they'll starve. Fending off a frenzying Toraptoise pack while their hyperactive metabolisms devour them from the inside out would make a fantastic encounter.

At other times, though, the two sides feel harder to reconcile. If the Veins of the Earth are the kind of environment in which a single day's food is worth a fortune, then what do all these giant monsters eat? How do the subterranean cultures generate enough surplus food supply to support artists and warriors and whatnot? Joyless workaholics like the dvargir might survive through sheer grind and ruthless self-discipline, but why haven't lunatic oddballs like the dErO all starved to death by now? I like the images conjured by the end of Deep Carbon Observatory, of an underworld of unimaginable scope and strangeness that just goes on and on and on and on, but the environment described here would seem to lend itself more to tiny handfuls of stunted primitives eking out a miserable existence on pittances of mushrooms and cavefish, rather than baroque nightmare empires sprawling beneath the earth. Patrick emphasises that individual readers should pick and choose which bits to use in their own games, but trying to use it all feels like it could lead to some rather contradictory places.

Half the book is monsters. Like all of Patrick's monsters, they are extremely original, brilliantly imagined, and evocatively described - the emphasis on sound and smell is particularly appropriate, given that most of them are likely to be encountered in complete darkness - and Scrap Princess has outdone herself in illustrating them. They mostly seem intended to generate single, highly-memorable encounters, rather than being the kind of creatures who might gather together in groups of 2d6 to engage in a little light banditry for the sake of filling out a random encounter table. No-one's going to forget the time their characters met a flying psychic sperm whale which assaulted everyone with its ancient nightmares, or the horrible spider-monster fleeing through the caverns with stolen children webbed to its back, pursued by their desperate parents, or the living statue made of shattered, jumbled-up idols which rewrote its own memories every time you hit it hard enough.

As with Fire on the Velvet Horizon, I'm not sure how much fun some of these monsters would be in actual play - the Tachyon Troll, for example, could potentially be used in some very devious ways, but is usually just going to be a troll with extra mechanics that punish you for interacting with it in any way other than just beating it to death. Or consider The Rapture, a kind of living madness that attacks people underground - fighting it once could be wonderfully weird and creepy, but having to fight it over and over and over again, the way the rules for it imply, would turn something strange and scary into a tiresome chore. Others seem oddly weak, given their descriptions: the AntiPhoenix, which is supposedly a near-godlike entity, will on average be killed by a single volley of arrows fired by a formation of 40 regular 0-level archers. But the ideas are superb. No-one else does D&D monsters like Scrap and Patrick. I'm more interested in people than in rocks or fungi or bacteria, so my favourites are probably the Meanderthals, Pyroclastic Ghouls, Fossil Vampires, Gilgamash, and Cromagnogolem, but if your interests tend more towards the utterly inhuman than mine then you will certainly not be disappointed.

Fundamentally, I think that any GM making much use of this book is going to need to decide whether they want their game to be more like The Descent or Journey to the Centre of the Earth. You can run a game where every descent into the underworld is a nightmare of madness and starvation and hypothermia and awful monsters hunting you through the darkness and dying miserably in a cave someplace because you had to pick between bringing one more rope and bringing one more lamp and you made the wrong choice. Or you can run a game where the PCs are intrepid explorers in a subterranean world which is richer and older and stranger than anything they've ever dreamed of on the surface, allying with the Trilobite Knights, providing shelter for the fleeing children of the Knotsmen, visiting the art collections on the back of the Civilopede, and sailing the waters of the Nightmare Sea. Veins of the Earth will help you to do either of these, but I suspect that you'd struggle to do both in the same game, unless you were willing to simply rule that after a certain point the PCs had become so familiar with their underground environment that they no longer needed to worry about the cave-by-cave details of navigation and survival.

Bottom line: this is a good book. This is the weirdest, creepiest, most powerfully-imagined D&D Underdark yet, and Scrap Princess has done an outstanding job of illustrating it. Like all Patrick's stuff it's very grim and depressing and horrible, but the awfulness can easily be dialled up and down to fit individual campaigns; and if you've ever wanted your D&D underworlds to be ever weirder, then this is an excellent resource. I'd just suggest some caution about using the rules or statistics as written!

9 comments:

  1. The thing is both versions of the underdark can exist. Places that have been populated by intelligent creatures should be carved out to make life easier (flat roads, channels to avoid flooding) and the much larger wilds beyond are those places where biological productivity would be much lower and biological life much scarcer.

    Of course there could also be oases where some form of energy is readily available, be it heat, light, magic, edible stones, whatever. And the fights over that energy source should be epic.

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    1. You could certainly have that kind of 'oases in the desert' setup, where *most* of the Underdark is a survival-horror nightmare, but the population centres and the trade routes between them are actually rather comfortable and civilised. (In fact, it'd probably end up looking like an underground version of Central Asia!) It's not the route that 'Veins of the Earth' takes - Patrick goes out of his way to emphasise that *everyone* in the Veins is hungry *all the time* - but it might be a neat way to put it all together...

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  2. So what keeps the wealthy from using Create Food and Water to fill their bellies?

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    1. It gets mentioned once. Obviously a more high-magic setting, in which anyone with decent Int or Wis could be trained as a magic-user / cleric, would make these environments much easier to live in!

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  3. I think this is literally the first review of anything OSR related I've read that actually reviews the product rather than (a) deifying or condemning the author for their personal attributes, or (b) breathlessly claims it to be the greatest work of creation since Gygax crawled from the swamps of Lake Geneva.

    Thank you.

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    1. This is a really good review.

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    2. No problem - glad you found it useful!

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  4. I 100% agree that the omission of settlement/cities, and the bridge between them and the more constrained caves, is a major issue for this book.

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    1. I think I just want a clearer idea of how an underground city / society *functions* in the Veins. In normal D&D Underdarks the answer is easy - they build their cities in conveniently city-sized caverns, and farm mushrooms and cave-fish and giant beetles and whatnot in direct imitation of surface-world agriculture and aquaculture. But if that's not the case here - and it seems not to be - then how *do* they work?

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