What Ho, Frog Demons! (OSR)
#9 of my Top Ten of 2018
The fourth Hill Cantons book clocks in at a massive 112 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 106 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair review. My review is primarily based on the print version, to be precise, on the full-color version. That POD-version has one full-color artwork inside, but uses a better quality of paper, so personally, I’d recommend paying the extra buck for the better quality paper. Unlike previous Hill Cantons-books, this one does have proper bookmarks, making navigation of the pdf version, which I also consulted, painless and simple.
Now, if you’ve been following my reviews of the Hill Cantons books, you’ll know that I am a fan of these strange books; if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll know that the previous releases include the wilderness area of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the city-supplement Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and the Misty Isles of the Eld.
Rules-wise, this employs the Labyrinth Lord rules, which means use with B/X is painless, and conversion to other OSR rules isn’t too difficult either. The overall region depicted is best suited for low to mid-level play, and the two adventure-locations included are designated for 4 – 7 characters level 2 – 4. It should be noted that one of these locations is much more dangerous than the other; indeed, the fully-fleshed out locations can be rather deadly and will probably serve to challenge higher level parties as well with minimal fuss.
This book, then presents the hexcrawl umbrella-setting that includes all of these previously-released locations and more, contextualizing them in the greater canton; there is no content overlap with these previous releases.
I’d be somewhat hard-pressed to find a common theme between the Hill Cantons books released so far; while Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld both feature a somewhat psychedelic metal aesthetic with some surreal components and pretty subdued pop culture references, Marlinko as a city and its content was more gonzo and tongue-in-cheek. This book, then, is closest to Fever-Dreaming Marlinko in theme, in that is it stuffed to the brim with nerd-culture references, particularly regarding the (OSR-)roleplaying scene, and can be designated as capital letters GONZO.
This book does not necessarily take itself all too seriously, and as such, whether this hits the spot for you, humor-wise, will determine significantly how much you enjoy this. It should be noted that the book does include profanity, so if you’re sensitive to the like or easily offended, you will have chances to take umbrage here.
It should be noted that the following does contain SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Only referees around? Great!
All right, before we get into the nit and grit of the material herein, it should be noted that the book contains a “bucolic village generator”, which includes a name-generator (including inappropriate monikers), strange villager quirks. These are…well…quirky. To give you an example from the table:
“Sad-faced men and bright-cheeked wives paint bluebirds and vampires and pig designs on sandals. Every sunset and every sunrise the men are strapped to holy cows and spanked with the sandals. The villagers are adamant that this keeps the vampire pigs away.” If this made you smile, then chances are that this has quite a lot to offer. The generator also includes d8 rustic and strange characters, 20 misadventures to have around the canton villages and even a proper carousing table.
The book also contains a bestiary section, which features the alkonost, a giant bird with a long neck and the head of a woman, and an entrancing and dangerous song that makes the listener forget progressively more of their own being. The bukavac is a pretty hilarious (and deadly) predator: The hexapod attacks in a unique manner. To quote the book: “The bukavac attacks by jumping above its chosen target and, bizarrely hanging in midair, pounding them to a pulp with its six feet. The resulting red ruin is then scooped up by its long tongue. This jump is invariably accompanied by the joyous hell-scream of “BWAAAAHHH!” – theoretically charming, if it were not for the carnage that near-invariably follows.” In case you haven’t noticed: Yes, this book is suffused with a lush and precise prose that often manages to blend the creative with the hilarious. Few books over the years have entertained me to this extent. The book also provdes stats for the dwarf-hobbit crossbreed Kudůki, characterized by extreme identity-confusion. Robo-dwarves and vodnik alongside wereworms (with a nightmare-fuel artwork) may be food, and of course, there are frog-demons to be found. Quite a few of them, actually. (As an aside: There will be a stand-alone supplemental Frog Demon generator at one point, but so far, the hydras haven’t finished it.)
And then there would be the deodands. As a fan of Vance’s writing, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the hydras managed to score the rights for the inclusion of this cult critter. But they are indeed played for laughs, and in a way that may break the immersion of some folks. There is, for example, a purple-skinned variant, the zeodand, that targets folks with sophistry and useless arguments. Oh, and the main lure of deodands? They try to lure in folks with time-share offers. No, I am not kidding.
See, and this is, kinda, where the book loses me. I’m not embroiled within the politics and bickering that one can see in the roleplaying game scene, at least not to the extent that others are. And still, I found a metric ton of wink-wink-nudge-nudge “eastereggs” – of course, there is the Staff of the Ragygi as a treasure. It can, oddly, be used to backstab, and lets the wielder cast Nystul’s Magical Kickstarter, which works as Magic Aura. …if you didn’t get why this somewhat annoyed me, you have more of a life outside of RPGs than I do. ;P Kidding aside, there are a TON of those wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments; more so than even in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and here, they somewhat…bothered me. Unlike in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, there is no dungeon made on a weird character’s concept from the Hill Cantons campaign. (Though there are plenty of notes how stuff from that game worked out – this time around, I considered these tidbits to be inspiring!) Instead, we have a ton of such meta-jokes.
The per se challenging Frog Demon Temple, for example, has a sidebar that displays “D10bestsellers of Hot Hell” that includes “Three Word Title: A Guide to the Naming of Products Auteur and Ludic” or “The Iron Doom Crawling Red Monolith of the Cursed Pod-God Maze.” Did these make me chuckle? Yes. Yes they did. Heck, we even get an artwork of the cover of “Applied Hedonics”, which made me grin indeed. None of these meta-jokes are bad; they’re genuinely funny. There simply are…so…many…of them, that it started to break my immersion. Seeing an illustrated frog demon idol that looks like Kermit? AWESOME. Aforementioned jabs and meta-jokes? Cool. But their accumulation can start to wear on you.
This is purely my personal opinion, but I think the Hill Cantons are better when their humor is less in your face; it’s the contrast between the regularly fantastic and the gonzo strangeness that makes them work; for me, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld hit a better balance there. This, however, is, and let me emphasize that, HIGHLY subjective. It may also be a genre thing – I tend to mind such references less in scifi or space opera games than in fantasy. So no, this will not negatively influence the final verdict, but for once, I found myself wishing I got less of the allusions and references herein.
Now, I briefly mentioned that the book does mention in a few places how it worked in the original Hill Cantons game: One such example would be Bad Rajetz, a settlement known for the production of fetish-wear, which, alongside the condo-reference, was the second jarring anachronism that I really didn’t like. (And I’ve been practicing BDSM for the better part of my adult life) – it just comes out of nowhere. The notes here state that the factions in the original game had a 4-way Red Nails-ish standoff, which frankly made me want to see that adventure, that context. Instead, I got a throwaway anachronism-oh-so-quirky line.
On the huge plus-side of things, there is a ton to be loved herein as well: We have an inconvenient, but immaculately-constructed highway fashioned by Hyperboreans; we have strange signposts that are rumored (accurately, as it turns out!) to be cursed. We have some of the best rumor-sections I have read in any book – false components are italicized for your convenience, and most rumors are actually pretty damn creative and oftentimes funny adventure hooks that tie in with the other Hill Canton books. Such references are clearly and precisely noted, which brings me to the component of usability – this book is extremely well-crafted in that context. You won’t need to do a lot of flipping back and forth, with stats noted where required, important information highlighted by being bolded, clever use of italics, etc. As one minor formal complaint, three “see p. XX”-remnants have remained within the book.
The book, somewhat like Marlinko, also features an array of truly intriguing encounters, both for the individual locales and for the cantons in general. From the war-bear PREVED! (who likes to intrude upon humans in certain circumstances, yelling at the top of his lungs) to the daughter of freakishly honest and racist Fraza, the characters succeed at the great tightrope act of being both intriguing and amusing. A lady with a hierarchy of husbands who then ritually consume the least favored husband, strange trees, the horned oracle “Ozbej the Gighacksian” (yep, another wink-wink-nudge-nudge-moment), talking badgers, a context for the FREE “Tree Maze of the Twisted Druid” and more may be found. It is impossible to even touch upon all the components herein without bloating this review beyond any usefulness.
So, let us talk about the adventure sites: The Frog Demon Temple is a straight-forward dungeon-crawl, and I’ve touched upon some of its peculiarities before; it is intended to be deadly; the PCs may or may not take a brief trip to a salon where frog demons lounge in the Hot Hells and, in a cool angle, finding one of the primary hooks for the dungeon exploration is actually pretty difficult.
The second fully-fleshed out scenario would be more unique – it is a genuine horror-satire, and it WORKS. It lampoons its genre just enough, stays serious and dangerous just enough, to be one of the precious few instances where a satire adventure actually is properly playable, fun to play, funny, and challenging. You see, Ritek, son of Ritek, doesn’t have an easy life. Being secretly an evil priest is hard, particularly when your second half is also…evil. The constant complaints about a lack of social advancement, about sufficient self-case, etc. made him snap one day.
““Did you remember to send the gilt-and-gore-edged invitations to the latest moonlight coven
coffee and cake soirée to the Lumpeks, the Neprespans, and those neophyte Novaks?”
In a midlife crisis moment of rage, Ritek slew his wife Maliska, buried her, and inadvertently created a funnel for a demonic spirit to inhabit a beet, which then proceeded to grow to monstrous proportions. When the village foreman attempted to…ähem…do things with the beet, he became BEETNIK ZERO!
And thus, we have a beet spawn epidemic that will slowly consume…not much, beyond a few backwater villages and folks. The folks in the hill cantons are incompetent, but not THAT incompetent. The bumbling evildoer’s wife is now a harmless ghost and tries to pin the infection on Ritek, while the demonic beet seeks to spread its influence! Today, the sty, tomorrow the world! The book presents an index that allows for the simple tracking of how far the beet infection/cult has spread, and the fields of the hamlet Ctyri Ctvrt is depicted in a modular point crawl, which allows you t use it an infection index 0 (boring hamlet mode) and at higher infection levels. There is, much to my groaning, an Onionator to be encountered. (This, once more is something that, while kinda funny, I could live without. This is just “lol, oh so random” – it’s trying too hard.) On the plus-side, even though the book does make fun of the notion, there is a sidebar that proposes 5 “Jane Austen – unglamorous backwater edition”-style sidequests I found hilarious and fun it their relatable pettiness.
The PCs can witness a ginormous Beaver that is regularly renewed by beavers, tuber-beetles and cows as a result of the infection, and obviously, time is of the essence. Beyond the general environment, the more detailed aspects of this part of the book are fully mapped as well, making this one of the precious few genuinely awesome and replayable funny adventures I’ve read over the year. And yes, it *can* be played as creepy. In fact, I’d recommend in favor of playing this with a straight face – makes for a great contrast to the outrageous and gonzo angle.
As a whole, I consider both detailed locations to be resounding successes, which continues the trend started in Misty Isles of the Eld, where the individual adventure locations started to become as awesome as the general setting/world/wilderness.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level, with only very few typo/oversight-level snafus. On a rules-language level, the book is precise and well-wrought. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard without much frills, and the book has A LOT of awesome, original b/w-artworks. The cartography in b/w is similarly great, but much to my chagrin, we do not get player-friendly, unlabeled versions to print out or use in conjunction with VTTs. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked (FINALLY!), and the perfect bound softcover features the title on the spine. On my copy, a bit of the color bled to the spine, but that’s just cosmetic.
Chris Kutalik has a thoroughly unique voice, and Luka Rejec (also responsible for the artworks) makes for a great co-author. This book, as a kind of encompassing regional source/adventure-book, had a tougher job than the previous Hill Canton books, and as such, it is fascinating to note how good it is. Extremely usable, this DRIPS ideas on every page, with easily half a year worth of surreal and fantastic gaming, at the very least, that can be wrung from its pages.
That being said, I am pretty sure that this book will be more divisive than the other Hill Canton books. It is very strongly tongue-in-cheek, and not everybody will consider the sheer sequence and extent of insider-jokes and meta-humor to their liking. Personally, I vastly preferred the Misty Isles of the Eld’s balance there. That being said, humor is very subjective.
As a reviewer, this leaves me with the formal criteria, and frankly, I found myself positively surprised by both adventure locales. The horror-satire module is genius and exceedingly fun and funny; the dungeon-crawl may be the strongest dungeon featured in the whole of the Hill Cantons books so far, provided you can stomach the insider jokes. Still, this is one excellent book, and one that has a voice unlike any other; it attempts a tone we usually do not get to see, and in the instances it succeeds, it does so triumphantly – to the degree where, frankly, I consider this a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018 in spite of its humor not always hitting home for me. It is different, creative and plain fun, and perhaps, just perhaps, the roleplaying games scene needs more books like this; books that drive home that we shouldn’t always take our little elfgames too seriously and embrace what they are…fun. Unsurprisingly, my final verdict will be 5 stars, and this does get my seal of approval.
You can get this amazing adventure/satire here on OBS!
Missed the other Hill Canton books?
Slumbering Ursine Dunes can be found here!
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is right here!
And the glorious Misty Isles of the Eld can be found here!
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