The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia – Vivimancer Edition (OSR)
This campaign setting/toolkit clocks in at 83 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page of ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 77 pages of content, laid out in approximately 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
The majority of this review, like the book, is identical with the review of the regular iteration of this book. The tl;dr-version would be that this is the mechanically-superior version of the book.
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 PoD softcover I purchased on OBS. The softcover has the book’s name on the spine and is solid, if slightly less impressive than the hardcover PoD-version of the regular edition of the book.
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. That being said, the vivimancer edition does offer some definite improvements to the usability of the content within – for example, we now do get tables for prices of the individual items, which makes it much more comfortable to use for the referee.
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 1 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 this is perhaps the most radical departure of this version of the supplement. Instead of the rather atrocious original carnomancer rules, we now simply reference Gavin Norman’s masterpiece, The Complete Vivimancer. While the artwork depicting the stages of worm metamorphosis has been swallowed by the new layout, using Mr. Norman’s supplement is a damn smart call. The spell-section, which was pretty much unusable in the original iteration, has been condensed to 2 pages…though the rules here, alas, are not as tight as I’d like them to be. One spell that creates a blubber explosion centered on the caster, for example, fails to specify whether the caster is affected or not. Formatting, this time around, gets spell-references right…about half the time, which may be a plus, but still does not suffice. It should also be noted that there is a cantrip that can yield a defense shield of essentially temporary hit points, but that also increases your weight and size, establishing a more high-fantasy tone than some would assume.
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. This subsection of the book, including the bestiary components, also greatly benefits from outsourcing some of the more daunting aspects to the vivimancer, making them run more smoothly. This extends to the NPCs, just fyi – so yeah, this is hands down the superior version as far as rules are concerned!
The meat lord’s 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 vivimancers 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 convention; better here than in the previous iteration, but still not as precise or consistent as I’d like it to be. The rules-language and rules-relevant components are often opaque benefit greatly from outsourcing components to Gavin Norman’s meticulously precise vivimancer. 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, and the PoD-softcover is solid and probably the most directly useful iteration of the supplement.
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, 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, and the supplement greatly benefits from having the amazing, inspired “Complete Vivimancer” to fall back on.
The mechanical and formal aspects still are not as well-executed herein as they should be. Don’t get me wrong – this new, vivimancer-enhanced edition of Meatlandia, is certainly the superior product, but I really wished the authors had taken the time to contextualize the entirety of the content within the formatting conventions established by The Complete Vivimancer. If components that are improperly formatted give you the fits, avoid this.
This sentence still holds true: Ironically, Meatlandia can be best described as “RAW” – and a bit of simmering would have done it good. That being said, Meatlandia is closer to being a delicious, bloody steak of a sourcebook in this iteration than it ever was before, and while the rules aspects of this book still can’t exceed the moniker of a mixed bag, that’s actually an improvement. The city itself, the dressing, the campaign setting presented herein, is still one of the coolest, most visceral and interesting ones I’ve read in a while. It oozes great ideas, and while nowhere near perfect, the vivimancer edition certainly represents a step in the right direction for Meatlandia. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down for the purpose of this platform. The campaign setting as such, and the ideas, it should be noted, are seal of approval material – it’s just the craftsmanship in some details that prevents this from receiving higher accolades from yours truly.
You can get this book on its own here on OBS!
You can get the inspired vivimancer class here on OBS!
And finally, there is a handy bundle that’ll net you both vivimancer and this book right here!