The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia (OSR)
This campaign setting/toolkit clocks in at 92 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page blank, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 83 pages of content, laid out in approximately 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
Before we take a look at the content, there are two things of note: For one, I am very ambivalent about this product, so I advise you to read the entirety of the review. This one will be either a hit or a miss for you, depending on your priorities. Secondly, I have based my review on both the pdf-version of this supplement and the Hardcover available for PoD on lulu. I am noting that because I was positively surprised by this PoD book – it comes with a dust jacket and is a pretty impressive book; as far as lulu-PoDs are concerned, it certainly ranks among the most impressive ones I’ve seen, so if you’re a bit of a bibliophile, this may be the version you’ll want to get.
The next thing you ought to know, is that this is pretty much a blending of player-centric book and GM/referee-material, but that its organization does not reflect that particularly well. We begin, for example, with the general introduction of the campaign setting (prefaced by the classic and amazing “The Conqueror Worm” by good ole’ Poe, which could be seen as a leitmotif) before we dive into the player-centric material. This is somewhat unfortunate, as you can’t simply hand the book to players and tell them “Read only this far.” Instead, you’ll have to curate the content before using it, which is a bit of an unfortunate decision as far as I’m concerned. I don’t like it when my players know the stats of the movers and shakers of a campaign setting.
The second unfortunate decision pertains the rules employed. The supplement uses a combination of OD&D and LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) rules, using the latter e.g. for hit point calculation. The precise choices are never made evident, and it should be noted that e.g. ability score progression of NPCs within assume a linear +1 to the respective bonus for every point above 18, which makes e.g. a Strength of 21 clock in at +6 bonus. This is never clearly stated as such, so depending on how faithful you are regarding the translation of your ability score-based components in your system, this *might* cause issues. HD (or levels) are noted alongside hit points, and the supplement uses ascending AC. Movement rating is missing the feet-indicator in the bestiary section, for example, and statblock components lack formatting, which makes them slightly harder to use.
In order to talk more about the other mechanical aspects of this supplement,. Though, I have to go into mild SPOILERS. If you prefer to experience the game sans previous knowledge of the basics, please jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So, as noted before “The Conqueror Worm” could be construed as a form of leitmotif here, and if I had to pinpoint a second, it’d be “gonzo body horror” that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but serious enough to be potentially really wicked. Meatlandia is not a country – it’s the last megalopolis of the world. It’s not a kind city – it’s a moloch, a magical-industrial nightmare-fuel juggernaut of almost Silent Hill-ish proportions in tone, expanded to the level of a city. (And before you ask: The book actually does come with a cartography appendix that does include maps of the city!) This is not a city like Freeport et al – it’s a ginormous, grimy thing, a hive, a collection of beings – it’s a city of proportions like Shenzhen, Laos, Mexico city; a collection of individuals far beyond what the term “city” usually means.
It also takes a classic metaphor, namely that of a city consuming its populace, and makes it very much tangible. More than once, I felt myself reminded of Silent Hill’s first pre-title card: “the fear of blood creates fear of the flesh.” There is some truth to that, and indeed, Meatlandia makes it very much evident that you can’t expect mercy in its chaotic and dangerous streets.
Speaking of chaos: The cosmic backdrop of this setting is pretty much the return of the chaos gods, the worms that tunnel through the earth – ostensibly beholden to a Conqueror Worm like thing, consuming everything. Meatlandia sees refugees galore, and indeed, when we visit this place, it is the last megalopolis on the planet – all others have fallen to the influx of chaos brought about by the worms tunneling ever closer to the surface, consuming everything.
…Did your PCs fail to stop Rovagug, Kyuss or a similar entity in your last campaign? Well, this may be a nice way to show the aftermath. But I digress.
The worms are a crucial component of the setting, and they are everywhere – in spells, hazardous effects and magic “items”; and their “worm honeydew” is an extremely potent component of spellcasting and magic in general – buts consumption carries the risk of transforming (as per Ravenloft’s tradition, over 5 steps) into a worm-like monstrosity. This transformation is supplemented by appropriate tables for 6 random effects, with stage 5 meaning, as per tradition, that the PC has transformed into a white worm NPC. The worms, obviously, are agents of chaos, of change – and Meatlandia, in contrast, is not exactly…better? The city is a tyrannical place, held together by iron will and adherences to a brutish and brutal form of Law, and yet, teeter-tottering on the edge of inevitable changes….though their guise if left to be determined by the PCs.
This brings me to the “classes”, of which 3 are basically “Archetypes”, or if you loathe the term, kits, for the bard. The first of these would be the raconteur, whose main draw is that he can gain a so-called posse of henchmen after singing and carousing for a night; level 5 yields some control over which follower is attracted, and they follow the thief/specialist progression and get d6 HD. With point-based skill-systems, they get s1 skill per level; for percentile-based, -10%, and otherwise, at -2 levels. As far as saves are concerned, raconteurs save as priests/clerics and get +2 to saves vs. paralysis/death, +2 to saves vs. enchantment/illusion and +1 to opposed Charisma checks, and +2 to Dex/reaction-based checks. Additionally, they are hard to influence, imposing their class level as a penalty on such attempts. The posse is left, thankfully, in the back of the book, for the GM, for beyond what they look like, the beings attracted may also have their own agendas.
More interesting and novel would be the Chaos DJ, and it is NOT for every group out there. The Chaos DJ realizes that she is under the influence of foreign forces. Note that this was YEARS prior to Black Mirror: Bandersnatch highlighting that concept. The Chaos DJ gets to make a special playlist for each session, and then achieve…something…vaguely related to the song’s lyrics. In-game. The whole meta-aspect makes these basically reliant on good referee improve, though one aspect also challenges the player: There is a growing, percentile chance that the Chaos DJ does the opposite of what she’s been told by the player – just to spite those powers-that-be that dare impose their inscrutable wills upon her. The base abilities are in line with those of the raconteur, but instead of the raconteur’s save boosts, these fellows get a +1 to saves vs. magic. While mechanically somewhat rough due to their wide open nature, I consider the Chaos DJs to be perhaps my favorite mechanical aspect herein.
The third bardic variant would be the nexus bard; they once more share the chassis with the previous two bard-variants, but get +1 to saves vs. paralysis, -2 to saves vs. magic, and +1 to all opposed chaos-related rolls. What the latter means? No clue, sorry. Their signature ability will make them indubitably compelling for the type of player that relishes casting e.g. summon spells in LotFP. They can adjust, once per day, a roll by class level; this can’t negate natural 20s and has no range. They also are inextricably linked with chaos storms ravaging the landscape. When entering a storm and reaching the nexus, they get one chaos charge, and they can store up to their class level such charges….which may be expended to attempt to call forth chaos storms. Yeah, nexus bards are as popular as you’d think them to be – at 5th level, they can collect a tax to move on to other places.
Why? Well, chaos storms are pretty damn cool, but also brutal: They are a profound, magical hazard, and in the book, we get a massive 100-entry strong table of distinct effects. Save vs. magic negates unless otherwise noted, but they are far out: Turning into puppies or kittens? Yep. Roll one of all your dice types – the highest result becomes the initiative for everyone in the party for the next 24 hours! (Hope you have the d50, d30, d24, d16 et al. ready…) Rain of tropical fruit, gender change, magic weapons (that have a percentile chance of singing), becoming temporarily (or forever, if you’re lucky!) super cool…some really nice ones there. Of course, all gold in the area could turn irrevocably to dust. You could develop a split personality. Ninjas might attack. The table does the CHAOS part of “chaos storm” justice.
But we’re not yet done with discussing the new layer-facing components. The movers and shakers of the city are the meat mages – and their rules are NOT good. In fact, the whole “new spells” chapter is basically non-functional and fails to adhere to the conventions of the base systems.I have nothing good to say about it or its lack of organization regarding magic items. The new, vivimancer-based version of Meatlandia is VASTLY superior in this chapter.
The final thing to discuss among the player-facing aspects would be the race of the kaldane – think of these fellows as heads with spider-legs: -6 Str, -2 Cha, +2 Dex and Int, 1d3 hit points per level. They fight as thieves/specialists, and save as clerics, with a bonus of +2 to saves vs. mind control. They are treated as fighters for skill purposes, automatically succeed at climbing, and, being essentially just heads, their write-up notes AC bonuses for helmets etc. They can hide/ as a rogue of their level…when not mounted.
Mounted? Yep, this species has entered a symbiotic relationship with the rykors, basically throwaway idiot bodies, which can fall apart rather easily. Kaldane do get mind control powers and some limited spell-like abilities at higher levels. Kaldane progress, XP-wise, as thieves, with the class table reaching as far as 12th level.
The kaldane represent one of the minor factions of Meatlandia, though the map-appendix does offer a map of a warren sans scale. The big movers and shakers, the key-NPCs, are noted in the beginning, in the campaign setting section: Meatlandia is ruled by the iron fist of the meat lord, a mighty carnomancer whose meat mechs keep the…wait…establish and order….no…enforce his rule. That’s it. His iron will shackles the city, makes it withstand – but the price is aforementioned metaphor of consumption. Meatlandia is a visceral place, and his flesh factories constantly churn meat into the magics required by his cadre of casters, consume, literally, the populace. His enhanced meat men are gruesome mutations – think of cybernetic enhancement, but instead with visceral, organic grafts….the place to whip out all those mutation/corruption tables you no doubt have. His executioner is also noted, and so is his opposition: The valiant rust lord, a champion of death and rebirth, makes for what could be construed as Meatlandia’s Arthurian savior. The adherents of the rust lord wield maces that rust metal items, and they are known as…*drum roll* “Rustafarians!” Come on, that deserves a chuckle! Other parts of the city are firmly under the control of the Death’s Hand guild, but none know their end-game. Famous knights, particularly nasty meat mages and horrid monstrosities are noted, and, as the folks are wont to tell, “Our Lady of Sorrows” (nice nod to either a) the myth, b) Argento, c) the criminally underrated CoC campaign, d) Thomas de Quincey’s similarly underrated literary contributions, or e) all of the above…) a kind of collective consciousness of the city, roams the streets.
Beyond aforementioned chaos storms, we have an inspired d50 city encounters table, a d20 refugee table, and the book does contain magic items that include meat that can be laced with blood of a target, killing the target upon consumption, literal meat shield and similar gory viscera. And worms. There are worms. For example, you should never say a person’s name and “worm” in the same sentence – otherwise, invisible worms all around might manifest and attack. There is a pretty random type of worm that may hijack your body…and there are witches riding on…bingo, worms…though these actually are the setting’s hippies, attempting to establish utopian communes far from the city. Did I mention the “Society for the appreciation of murder”, basically a serial killer fan-club? Or the unstoppable killer that is Sideways Emily, who *will* kill you? The book also implies e.g. that the world may be eaten by a cosmic fish at one point, and features several nice campaign seeds and hooks, if the massive amount of imagination and ideas herein hasn’t already made you want to run this. It will have, fyi.
Editing is good on a formal level; formatting is pretty much all over the place and adheres to no system’s convention. The rules-language and rules-relevant components are often opaque and not precise enough. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, and the book comes with a surprising array of really nice b/w-artworks (original pieces) that capture well the grimy and gonzo high, but dark fantasy vibe of the setting. The cartography in b/w is rather nice and player-friendly, though it’d have been nice to get a scale for the maps. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with nested bookmarks and all, and the PoD-version, as noted, is seriously worth contemplating.
Wind Lothamer & Ahimsa Kerp have penned a setting that inspired me; I expected to get a kind of Carcosa-knockoff, and got something different: An, at least for OSR-games, high-powered setting of easy-come, easy-go, lethal adventuring through one of the most disturbing, and yet funniest, cities I have seen so far. Meatlandia is an inspired post-industrialized nightmare, as seen through the lens of magic, and it can be played as something truly horrifying; similarly, it could just as well be run as a gonzo setting that embraces the over-the-topness of its concepts and runs with it. Stuart Gordon’s “Reanimator” is quoted as an inspiration, and it shows in tone, though I’d probably liken it more to the slightly lesser known “From Beyond” and its treatment of physicality.
The theme of Meatlandia, the inevitable breakdown of bodies into components to be consumed, in some cases literally, is a theme that resounds, particularly nowadays. The writing and ideas herein are absolutely phenomenal.
The same can’t be said about the mechanical and formal aspects. The latter may be excused, but the lack of adherence to a singular system greatly hurts this supplement; it tanks the wonky spellcasting section, and makes things harder for the referee than they ought to be on all accounts. Ironically, Meatlandia can be best described as capital letters “RAW” (Nor Rules As WRITTEN – RAW…like MEAT) – and a bit of simmering would have done it good.
If you’re in it for the crunch and rules, then think carefully before getting this – in those regards, this is, at best, a 2-star offering, and I wished the book had instead spent more time depicting the amazing setting….which is genuinely inspired, novel and fun. So if that’s what you’re looking for, then this might well be what you’re looking for.
There is no reconciling these positions.
On the one hand, I love the setting; on the other hand, the rules simply aren’t up to par, and as such, my final verdict can’t exceed 3.5 stars, rounded down.
You can get this unconventional setting book/toolkit here on OBS!
If you’re a bibliophile, the impressive hardcover version can be found here on lulu!