Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Dungeon Dioramas - Night Land

After recently reviewing In the Light of a Ghost Star, it seems my antennae were up for other games inspired by William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land. So I was pleasantly surprised by the coincidence of Singing Flame's summer release of Night Land, written by Vasili Kaliman, illustrated by Andrew Walter, and with a map by Benjamin Marra.

Night Land is a sandbox setting compatible with the Necrotic Gnome's Old-School Essentials rules, although travel and NPC reactions have their own rules built into the setting. Night Land is rendered as a self-contained pointcrawl with a defined entrance in the west and exit in the east, and it is consciously inspired by Weird fiction ... although notably missing from Vasili's list of inspirations is Hodgson's The Night Land. I think that's accurate. The mood here is maybe closer to the nihilism of Clark Ashton Smith's Xothique stories, refracted through the lens of Jack Vance's faux serious absurdity, and Adventure Time's full-on gonzo.
 


The Sandbox

Night Land is a mini setting with 17 sites. The sites are roughly laid out into two loops with a single connection between them, a bit like a pair of eyeglasses. There is an entrance in the west and an exit in the east, each represented by a deep hole in the group occupied by an eccentric spellcaster.

The titular Night Land is a snow-covered plain of eternal night, lit by an unsetting moon and a surprisingly small number of stars. Vasili recommends that the player characters enter Night Land unexpectedly and by accident while traveling at night, and leave it like waking from a dream. 
 
Distances along the paths between site are given in hours to travel, and travelers have a 1-in-6 chance of a random encounter per hour on a path, and the same with lengthy site visits. There's a single list of encounters with different numbering for adventurers on a path or inside a site, although certain types of encounters can only happen on paths and others only within sites. There are encounters with NPCs and monsters, sights and weather, and complicating events that are generally negative. It's clear from this table that Night Land is meant to be a dangerous place, only barely habitable by humanity.


 
Factions, NPCs, and Monsters

Vasili poured a lot of his effort into filling Night Land with people to talk to. There are several named factions with philosophies that mostly revolve around how to think about the darkness and light. Nearly every site on the map has a list of named NPCs who are singled out for a more detailed individual description. And random encounter table includes significant chances to encounter "cultists" who have non-sun-related philosophies and "residents" who are essentially civilians. 

The three factions most concerned with light and darkness appear at the beginning of Night Land, and locating their write-ups there helps Vasili drive home the importance of the endless night to the people of the setting. The Sun Mourners are sort of guilt-driven Catholic types holding an endless funeral for the dead sun, the Necro Divas are narcissists who want to be worshiped and are casually violent, and the Void Engineers are addicted to hallucinogens that give them visions of the perfecting the science needed to reignite the sun.

Of the three, the Sun Mourners and Necro Divas show up the most. They both have individual entries on the encounter tables, and each control one site on the map. The Void Engineers appear in the "conflict" encounter entry, but are otherwise much less present in the setting. The Chaos Messiahs, found near the exit, seem like they should be counted among these factions, since they have a plan to relocate the planet to orbit a still-active star. Both the general absence of the Void Engineers, and the last-minute appearance of the otherwise-unmentioned Chaos Messiahs feel like slight missteps in the creation of the web of competing solar factions.

Cultists get a couple spark tables to generate a name, which can then serve as the basis for the referee to improvise. Residents get a bit more spice. They have names, skills, motivations, possessions, and personality quirks. There's also a spark table for generating names for NPC character classes. The philosophy behind these tables is a kind of baroque minimalism. You get an evocative turn of phrase to spark the referee's creativity, a cult called "The Flesh Dawners" for example, or an "Overworld Visionist" character class, or an NPC who's a "insane scholar, convinced they are cursed" who owns a telescope. Vasili's writing is at the opposite end of a spectrum from the encyclopedic entries for organizations in D&D and Pathfinder. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps, are the terse but still defined factions Jack Shear wrote for his Krevborna and Umberwell settings.
 

Aside from the guardians of the entrance and exit to Night Land, the NPCs you can meet all have between 1 and 3 Hit Dice, so even for low-level characters, talking instead of fighting is a choice rather than a necessity. Vasili wrote his NPCs to facilitate talking. As I said, most locations have named NPCs who are willing to converse and negotiate. And each is written with enough detail to help the referee portray them as a unique person. 

If there is a flaw in Vasili's writing here, it's that the NPCs feel really random, perhaps too much so. There are a lot of details to work with, but the different facts listed don't necessarily easily cohere into a personality, and I don't see any running themes that make the named individuals in one faction seem consistently different from those in another. On the other hand, these strange people are certainly genre appropriate, and the randomness is probably less noticeable to the players, who might see 5, than to the referee who reads 30. Here's an example, a Sunmourner from one of the first sites the players might enter:

"TAHAN - Former map maker. Absurdly tall. Easily embarrassed.
No memory of the past. Can chop off a finger to become invisible for an hour. Hates everyone.
Possessions: Key to a family crypt. Lyrics and music to a song. Power: Eye carved into forehead, can read a creature's thoughts for one minute per day."
 
The otherwise excellent presentation of information (more on that in a moment) kind of breaks down for the NPCs as well. What makes "easily embarrassed" more important than "hates everyone"? Why is telepathy called out as a bolded "power" while invisibility receives no special emphasis? There's nothing exactly wrong with this, but it also gives Night Land's NPCs a strange kind of same-ness in their oddity. They are all unique in similar ways, a bit like the procedurally-generated monsters from Island of the Unknown.


The bestiary at the back of Night Land contains only a half dozen creatures - all the other adversaries in the Land are human. They range from ½ to 20 HD, but mostly fall into the same low, limited range as the NPCs, and the biggest monsters are also the rarest. Twilight Vermin are procedurally-generated and seem to fill the niche of representing Night Land's far-future wildlife. Winged Beheaders - which fly around on dragonfly wings, wearing the severed human heads of their most recent victims like masks, and slicing throats with their wicked scorpion tails - are perhaps the most memorable of Vasili's monsters.


Instead of a universal reaction roll, Vasili has written a mini-table of specific reaction for each major faction, for cultists, for residents, and for the intelligent monsters. The monsters are mostly violent and hostile, but all the people are much more likely to want to talk than to fight. This is a nice touch that I think probably encourages non-combat interaction. The different tables also help establish the personality of each group. It's clear that residents are less dangerous than cultists, for example. And even if you get a positive result, knowing that the Necro Divas are "hostile" half the time shapes how you think about their typical behavior.


 
The Sites

The sites on the pointcrawl map are a nice mix of types. There are the entrance and exit, a pair controlled by the Sunmourners and Necrodivas, and a few others with human or near-human inhabitants. There are also a handful of buildings that, although there are no dungeon maps provided, could conceivably be explored if the referee and players were interested. The others are locations where the players will encounter unusual phenomena, like a vista of the strange stars in Night Land's sky, or perpetual weather systems with supernatural effects.

The layout of the map is such that players who are focused on passing from entrance to exit as quickly as possible will see about half the possible locations, while players who want to explore should be able to loop about without backtracking or too much revisiting.

Vasili has front-loaded the earliest sites with the safest and most interactive NPCs, and with plenty of rumors, plot hooks, and quests to ease the players into the setting and provide them with reasons to go forward into the more dangerous parts. It's another area where his care to encourage exploration and negotiation really shines through. 

The real heart of this setting are its opportunities to interact with the strange people who live there, to learn their bizarre philosophies and venomous rivalries. The map and its sites are less a maze to explore and more a stage for all the weird personal dramas to play out. Players can likely navigate the map by  asking questions and listening to rumors, but traveling in Night Land is less about what you want to see and more about who you want to meet.


Presentation of Information

One final aspect of Night Land stands out to me as deserving of special mention, which is the excellent and efficient presentation of information to the referee. Night Land uses the standard "good layout" tricks of not allowing sections to cross page breaks and co-locating useful information onto two-page spreads. But it goes beyond that. 

We start with a "prelude" to give an overview of the setting and its few unique rules. We get write-ups of the key factions. We get a random encounter table with separate dice-result columns for those encounters that happen while traveling and those that happen within map locations. The key for each location includes reminders of which other sites it's linked to. The map is in the center page-spread where it can be easily turned to at any time due to the staples. There's a smaller unlabeled map on the inside of the front cover. After the last location we get a table of rumors. We get tables to generate cultists, residents, and other NPCs. 

And at the very back, we get a pair of tables that help to summarize the relationships between the various inhabitants. One is a matrix that lists the 3 factions and 6 monsters both horizontally and vertically, then uses the two intersection to explain the two sides of their relationship. So looking at the Necrodivas and the Quantum Blinkers, for example, we see that "Divas GLORIFY Blinkers" and "Blinkers SPY for Divas". It's a very quick way to tell how the players' alliance with one group might affect their interactions with another - or how to decide what happens next when a random encounter causes two groups to interact unexpectedly. 

The second matrix uses the intersections to show the singular connection between each of 7 key map sites. If I want to know the relationship between the Children of the Rain and the Tea Gardens, for example, I can see that "Children of Rain are ADDICTED to a variety of tea found in the Gardens". This is another tool that seems useful for a referee wanting to know how the NPCs at specific locations feel about each other, and what sort of missions they might try to persuade the player characters to go on.

Presenting information this way does place limits on the scope of the adventure. If you are determined that your reader should never turn a page to continue something, but only to move on to a new thing after the old thing is finished, you're required to limit the number of things you can talk about, and to describe them fairly tersely. If you want an encounter table that fits on two zine-sized pages, or a relationship matrix that fits on one, then you're limited in the number of monsters and factions you can include. In Night Land's case, I think that working creatively within those limits has produced a setting that is relatively small, but still complex enough to be interesting.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this review! I'd taken a look at Night Land on DTRPG and didn't think I'd be able to find it in print, so very happy to see the adventure in their store along with a few other Singing Flame zines I'd wanted!

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    1. Thanks, atanamar! I'm glad you were able to find a copy.

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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Trey! And thank you again for bringing this one to my attention.

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  3. I think this is a great point about upsides and downsides about two page spreads. Going out on a limb here, but I also think it's a problem when there's *not enough* information to fit the rigid two-page spread. You end up with uneven amounts of blank space on different pages that otherwise resemble each other, and so it looks uneven and ragged. On a separate note: I hope you one day find your Hodgson-inspired RPG material!

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    1. I think good incidental art can help out a page that doesn't have much going on, but you're right, there are limits that way too. It's probably worse if you have both problems in the same book!

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  4. Thank you kindly for this review. It’s very generous to get this level of scrutiny into my work and to have such a substantial post devoted to it. I particularly welcomed the references to ‘baroque minimalism’ and the work of Jack Shear, both of which I was previously unaware of.

    In terms of Hodgson and Night Land, the question was asked countless times when I was teasing the book on social media in the lead-up to release. Most people wanted to know if this in fact would be a setting based on Hodgson’s world. I did borrow the title from his book, although I must embarrassingly admit, I have not read it. I tried a few times, but I struggled to get through the first 30 pages or so. However, I did read several reviews and articles about Hodgson's story, so I must go back to the original at some stage. So, the overall tone of Night Land (the elevator pitch being ‘a world of perpetual night’) is partly influenced by Hodgson. In hindsight, I should have noted that in the credits (I will do so in further printings). The biggest influences were the nihilistic apocalypticism of Clark Ashton-Smith, Vance’s Dying Earth setting, and the Dreamlands stories by H.P Lovecraft. I was especially influenced by Chaosium’s Dreamlands setting books for the Call of Cthulhu RPG, which they made for the 2nd and 5th editions (I believe a new volume of Dreamlands is in the works for CoC 7th ed).

    In terms of the layout and two-page spreads (which have been spotlighted in the review and mentioned in the comments), I’ll give you a bit of insight into my process which may interest your readers. I write all the text from raw to edited state purely within the final page layout. I use InDesign. I make decisions about page structure, typeface styles, font spacing, margin widths, heading sizes, etc, even before I begin the writing. This gives me full control over the layout, and allows me to edit as I write to make things fit onto one or two pages - it’s intentional. I learned about this technique from reading an interview with Kevin Crawford (from Stars Without Number fame), who writes all his books using this method. I find the two-page method can also have downsides, as it may compel the text to have a terse (and perhaps sterile) quality, because of the limitations imposed on the layout. For example, if you’ve designed a page where the description of a dungeon room MUST be in one column only, it sometimes demands a particular kind of writing. It's a parameter that some writers wouldn't want to work within.

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    1. Thank you for the insight into your process, Vasili! We're always happy to hear from the original authors on here. I remember seeing Kevin Crawford talk about that technique too. It's nice to see successful ideas passing from one person to another.

      I think Hodgson's "Night Land" is a better setting than it is a novel. I can understand why you'd take inspiration from the basic idea but then go in your own direction to populate the land. I appreciate hearing about your other inspirations though! I'm not really as big a Hodgson fan as I've made it seem like - it's just that like you, I'm drawn to the "world of perpetual night" as the starting point for a game.

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