This installment of the Vacant Ritual Assembly-‘zine clocks in at 53 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of introduction/editorial/recommendations, 5 pages of advertisements, leaving us with 45 pages of content. These are laid out in approximately 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), and it should be noted that one advertisement also serves as the back cover. The other advertisements are spread throughout the ‘zine, but thankfully, none of them bisect an article – they are used as breaks between articles, which is okay, if not ideal – at least in my book.
In case you’re new to the ‘zine – the default rules-system assumed within is LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess), and thus, we’re looking at a comparably low PC power-level (though magic generally can have super serious repercussions). Conversion to other OSR-systems is pretty simple as far as the material within this ‘zine is concerned.
So, let’s start with the material within that I can discuss without going into deep SPOILER-territory. The first article, penned by Clint Krause, would be “Grigoro’s Wonders Untold”, a traveling sideshow of weirdos. The write-up contains stats for the cast of NPCs, which include magically-conjoined twin orange yetis, a frog demon pseudo-aristocrat, a bubbly four-armed fairy, and a melancholy spirit trapped in a glass tube…to note a few. Much to my surprise, we get a rather well-drawn b/w-artwork depicting this cast of characters, and beyond stats, we also get a breakdown of how a show actually runs and can purchase some slightly magical oddities, that include cake that makes you dance, and brownies that give you explosive diarrhea. No, I have not made the latter up. They are called…Browntownies.
Later in the pdf, Clint Krause also presents us a twist on the killer-children trope, with a brief one-page excerpt of the Grimsly Hill Cherubs, taken from the long-time upcoming Driftwood Verses book – which I backed and still very much look forward to, though, when compared to what I’ve seen there, this sneakpeek seems comparatively conventional. Not my favorite piece herein.
The Gallows on Heretic Hill, and the Noosefriars, are two articles also penned by Clint Krause that do a much better job at highlighting what he’s capable of. In a way, these two brief articles represent a whole campaign template that will prove to be a godsend to many gamers out there. With a fully mapped cathedral and stats for Penitent jack, this section does have rules-relevant components and map-support, but the strength here is the concept: Basically, you can picture the Noosefriars as a kind of church-sanctioned black Ops strikeforce…one that is immortal. You see, when the noosefriars get a noose from gallows’ hill, they won’t die. Instead, upon death, their spirits are transplanted into one of the corpses dangling from aforementioned gallows, with them retaining their personality, but losing 50% XP. This set-up allows you to retain one “character” through multiple deaths (of which there are plenty in LotFP) and also explore identity-questions, transhumanism, questions of faith and free will…all through a dark fantasy lens. It’s a brief two connected articles, sure – but it’s really inspiring, not just for LotFP. If you ever wanted to play a really deadly campaign, but have players that really dislike having to come up with new character identities time and again, this makes for a great solution. Similarly, for Dark Souls/Salt & Sanctuary and similar gamestyles, emulated in RPG, this does its job rather well.
Speaking of jobs done rather well – the ‘zine also includes an interview with Emmy Allen, the mastermind behind Dying Stylishly Games and author of “Wolf-packs and winter snows”, a book that I really want to finally see the PoD version for the revised edition. Anyhow, I digress.
These are the aspects of the module that I could discuss without going into SPOILERS – but the ‘zine actually contains not one, but two fully-mapped modules, and one particular environment/complex encounter/sidetrek. All of these are generally suitable for low level parties, approximately from levels 1 -4. The second adventure I’ll discuss will be exceedingly hard at these levels – 3 to 5 seems like a better level-range there.
In order to discuss these, I have to dive into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great!
So, the first adventure, penned by Kathryn Jenkins, is “From Dunnholt it Rises”, and it is a brief, but furious dark fantasy yarn that is easy to expand upon. It is presented in a pretty barebones general level of detail considering its complexity, but without that ever really bothering me. Dunnholt is a miserably island, some distance from the coast of Scotland, or any other locale you choose, really. In fact, with barely minor cosmetic reskins, it can be easily be transplanted to pretty much any cultural sea-adjacent sphere. Dunnholt doesn’t have much to offer – a few docks, a fortified hold, atop cliffs, a bit of rock, and a bit of forest…and it recently got worse and less welcoming than it was before. Dunnholt has been transformed into a quarantine island, receiving plague victims and not much more. Now, the PCs are faced with the task of investigating the late arrival of the latest ship – and when it comes, the crew is riddled with black tumors, black rats scurrying in the shadows, carrying “Dunnholt’s Gift”, a horrid degenerative disease that basically slowly turns those afflicted into tumor-ridden plague-zombie-like things, so-called yearning ones. The spread of this darkness must be stopped, particularly if the PCs want to find a cure against the horrid disease.
Dunnholt itself is a foreboding place, and while each individual location is only briefly sketched, they all have something going for them: As the PCs explore the island, they’ll be attacked by the tumor-ridden yearning ones. In the hold, an anthropomorphic giant rat flutist asks for a dark pact, while a dying plague doctor utters cryptic warnings…and indeed, beyond the forest and beneath the hold, there lie the labyrinthine plague dens (alas, sans scale), the tunnels in Dunnholt where the miserable truth can be found. The only reason that the island’s vileness hasn’t yet spread further is the state of checkmate between two of three dark forces: There is a coven of three witches, which have been drawing power from the dark heart of the island. They want the PCs to eat from the heart of the island – they’ll provide a cure…but unbeknown to the PCs, this will be fatal for them. The island is alien – an alien parasite of vast proportions, which has, tick-like, afflicted our planet. Eating from the heart will have a new island gestate years later, rupturing the PC, spawning a new such den of evil. The other faction is a horribly disfigured plague doctor, known as “The Good Doctor” – fused with his plague-mask, the grotesque thing of tumors and mutations is behind the spread of Dunnholt’s Gift…and slaying him is a condition for the help of the witches. Killing the heart will have cataclysmic effects, as the island sinks and the floods will destroy coastal towns…so the decision the PCs are making and the consequences thereof will not be pleasant…
The second adventure, “Death Planted the Esther Tree”, is penned by Kreg Mosier, and is labeled as “A Rootmire Mansion Crawl” – much to my chagrin, I found no additional scenarios written by the author, and frankly, that’s a damn pity, for this is not only an excellent mansion crawl that is genuinely horrific, it also represents one of the best iterations of what I’d consider to be Southern Gothic traditions in an RPG-adventure. Not only is the prose absolutely excellent, the mystery pertaining the fates of a well-to-do, if clannish family, the Relecroix, is absolutely genius. We have a three-level mansion-crawl with a plant-theme and rot/dilapidation suffusing every location – not just in theme, but also in rules-relevant aspects. The horrid tragedy that is at…the root (pardon the pun) of the tragedy here can be discovered by the PCs as they explore the perpetually overcast and rain-shrouded house. Vat-born albino-slaves and animated twig-things roam the grounds, and skin pierced with ebonwood can afflict the PCs with a kind of rot. An undead mire dragon can be found in a subdued optional boss battle (and nod towards fantasy traditions), while the true final boss proved to be not only evocative, but downright nasty. This is easily one of the best modules I’ve read in a ‘zine, and I seriously hope we’ll get to see more from the author in the future! I want to know more about Rootmire! And yeah, the amazing map does not have a scale, but it does have squares, which allows you to easily run this.
Can this be topped? Well, it depends on your preference. As much as love my classics, I am always enamored with things that are thoroughly novel – and Anxious P. delivers in the final article that I have to comment on: “Papa Lathmos Sugar Cane Crop.” This series of extended encounters/environment is, by its own subtitle, a “hyperglycemic nightmare”, and this description pretty much tops whatever I could say regarding the content presented. The prose here creates images of sweltering, relentless heat and hallucinations. To give you a brief excerpt: “The sugar cane shakes without breeze as you waddle or tromp towards its edges, like thousands of rattlesnakes in a rain storm. The stalks are striped in a violent black camouflage […]“ – we learn about the people of sugar, subsisting on a sludge of dehydration and sweet rot, speaking dreams through rotting teeth, chattering a language too „dripping“ to be understood. Their swaying is infectious, and being in the presence of an elder may make you…move..into the sugarfield, where 4 different nightmareish encounters hearken. With dream-logic and truly disturbing and resounding visuals, as you turn into sugar, only to have it melt away, rendering the clearing a sludge…with strange things of multiple bodies attacking you, laughing, as you can see a man punctured and drained by sugarcane…and worse. These brief encounters are not meant to be an adventure, but they are genius and understand how nightmares work. I’d totally buy Anxious P.’s book of nightmares without a second’s hesitation after reading this article. It’s a masterpiece of weirdness, supplemented by the stats of ephemeral, but deadly things. It’s not mechanically complex per se, but it doesn’t have to be. I love it.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. While I noticed a few minor hiccups, nothing really impeded my enjoyment of the articles within. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, and the ‘zine sports a surprising amount of neat b/w-artworks I haven’t seen before. The cartography for the adventures is b/w and impressive – particularly for the Rootmire crawl and the Cathedral on Gallows’ Hill, though I would have loved to get player-friendly, unlabeled versions of these maps. The pdf version has bookmarks, but only three of them, which limits usability of the ‘zine. I strongly suggest getting the softcover PoD version – I actually got it right here in my hands, and it’s definitely worth owning.
Clint Krause’s decision to move Vacant ritual Assembly to PoD and expand its breadth is a great call – the expanded room for material makes this easily the best of the installments of the ‘zine so far, and while usually, the lack of bookmarks and player-friendly maps would see me penalize this in some way, I frankly can’t bring myself to doing so here. Why?
Well, for one, even the weakest article herein can still be considered to be “good”. The majority of the content, though, is, frankly, awesome. Clint Krause’s noosefriars are a stroke of genius and blow his previous factions clear out of the water. Kathryn Jenkins delivers with her dark fantasy island-tale – it’s compressed and requires that the GM fleshes it out, sure, but if you’re good at improve, you can get a ton of sessions out of this one. I know I’m going to expand it!
Kreg Mosier’s Rootmire crawl, though, and Anxious P.’s nightmare-encounters are, what ultimately, to me, elevate this issue above all previous installments of Vacant Ritual Assembly. They are absolutely inspired – the former as a near perfect execution of genre-piece in a genre that is all but unrepresented in RPGs, and the latter for just being so…disturbing and novel. Either of these articles would have imho warranted the asking price, but combined? Yeah, this is a ‘zine that’s very much worth owning, particularly if you have even remotely a thing for Southern Gothic themes. My final verdict is 5 stars + seal of approval, with the caveat that the pdf-only version loses a star due to the comfort detriments noted above.
You can get this inspiring ‘zine here on OBS!