Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (OSR)
The second big Hill Cantons-book clocks in at 72 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 66 pages of content, laid out in the classic digest (A5-ish) standard, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience. I do own the print version of this booklet and my review is primarily based on the print version. I did also consult the pdf.
Content-wise, I probably should state that if you’re a super-devout Christian, one particular aspect of the supplement *may* potentially offend you; it also contains profanity. I found it hilarious, but yeah. Warning disclaimer and such.
Now, I assume familiarity with the concepts of the Hill Cantons in this review, so please bear that in mind. I have reviewed the Cosmology pdf and the second compendium of rules-material – this is relevant, since the Mountebank and the Robo-dwarf race class have been presented in the second compendium. The pdf does contain 30 female and 31 male names, a brief page on nicknames and a short pronunciation guide for the Slavic nomenclature employed in Marlinko. Note that I am no specialist in Slavic languages and have a hard time determining authenticity here, with Czech being the only Slavic language I am rudimentarily familiar with – though my proficiency, so far, is unfortunately atrocious, which is a pity, considering how much I loved Ajvaz’s and Topol’s writing – I need to read them in the original one day. But I digress.
The pdf does include 3 monsters, with robo-dwarves being one; the second is a wobbly giant, and we get a vampire variant. A tiger wrestling mini-game is also includes in the deal – it’s fun, rules-lite and a nice diversion. Speaking of rules: As before, labyrinth Lord is the default rules-system assumed here, though conversion to other OSR-games, as always, is dead simple.
Now, this city is in pretty close proximity to the Weird, and as such takes on the cast that the “fever-dreaming” indeed so successfully implies: This city could make for a great place to splice e.g. Narcosa-content into the game, and it *is* weird. And gonzo. And genuinely funny.
You see, this supplement/book focuses on making a super-gameable city: Not one that drowns in details, but neither one that just remains a sketch. The city section as such straddles that ephemeral line between the two extremes with panache aplomb, and is utterly HILARIOUS while doing so. This is one of the very few honestly FUNNY gaming books that actually manages to blend humor with excitement. There are few gaming books that made me laugh out loud. This has succeeded doing just that. The city supplement component does present a lot of things to generate and to work with – if you do want a go-play city, then this will not provide what you’re looking for: This is a place to work with, a hazy inspiration that comes together by the hand of the GM taking the ideas presented and developing them.
Now, beyond the city supplement aspects, this also has two fully-detailed adventure-sites. Both are super-challenging for the level-range suggested (levels 2 – 6; total party levels 12 – 18); if you’re looking to actually kill the opposition/murder hobo through these sites, you’ll die horribly. These adventure-sites, as well as the city itself, are provided in gorgeous isometric versions provided by the talented Luka Rejec. They also are available as their own free map-pack – a direct link is at the bottom of the review on my homepage. Now, unfortunately, neither map-pack nor the book provide redacted player-friendly versions of these maps, which is a bit of a bummer here.
As mentioned before, I do own the PoD softcover – it’s a nice little book with interior b/w-art, and the city map is on the back cover in the PoD-version. If you do get this, get print.
The pdf has no bookmarks.
Yep, you heard right. I actually delayed my review for months, hoping that they’d be added, but so far, no dice. The pdf thus is a huge pain to navigate.
Not cool. Get print.
Now, it is in the nature of this supplement that the ideas and notes presented in the setting supplement sections will gel together with campaigns and the adventure-locations; as such, this constitutes my big SPOILER-WARNING. I will talk in detail about quite a few of these aspects. Potential players of this one should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Seriously, players – jump ahead! Okay, final question: Truly only GMs around? Great!
So, the book begins with a brief in-character vignettes that PERFECTLY encapsulates the themes and tone of the city. The scene depicts a trip to the Serene Guild of Seers, just to provide context:
From the darkness above, a booming, hollow voice demands, “WHAT DO YOU SEEEEEK?”
Ba Chim replies: “Where is the tip of the sword Fauxbringer located, and what must be done
to restore the sword to its full powers?”
The oracle begins to sway side to side melodramatically, shouting: “VIAKHANA Xitchol!
Serpadon! Cuccagna! NATAS!” and then breaks in with a monotone, “What is a stick that is
not a stick? When is a rock not…”
The attendant hurriedly interrupts her. Ba Chim can make out over the attendant’s stage
whisper that he is urgently saying “full rate.” The oracle abruptly stops and says in a perfectly
clear, normal-toned voice: “Oh, well, you can find the sword in the underground level under
the Tower of the Master in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. Cirl the Petulant left it sitting on a
worktable right next to the magical forge that can repair it. Cirl was slain for reneging on a
gambling debt by a blue-skinned giant apparently before he could complete his task.”
If you’re like me, then that made you at least smile. The humor is truly amazing and suffuses the whole book in an unobtrusive and fun way.
So yeah, that is the type of humor you can find within; but there is more. So much more. Marlinko, as a city, is divided into 4 contradas, with central roads separating these quarters; all but one of these central thoroughfares lead to a gate. As the map notes “Lacking Gate of Cracked Skulls” – things are weird here, after all! In the center of the city, at the nexus, there is a black square block, the tomb of the city gods, with 4 of the 5 gods each associated their own contrada. These include a literally razor-tongued town god rumored to be an idiot and a vaguely bee-shaped bringer of both affluence and anxiety. Think about the latter for a second – beyond the outré nature of the concept, it is actually CLEVER.
Now, the contradas each get their own, small section: These sections provide an overview, a couple of sights to see around the contrada, as well as a selection of random encounters, with stats provided. These include e.g. Borko, Collector of Pollen (to be found in the richest Contrada, the one devoted to the bee god-thing…), asking for a “voluntary donation”…or Maus. (German for “mouse.”) That guy is convinced that the secret postal and matchmaking service “Axis of Tindrthurn” has it in for him….he’s obviously paranoid and delusional. Well, kinda. You see, he may be right.
What does that mean? Well, the amazing Chaos Index to simulate fluctuations of weirdness and magic from Slumbering Ursine Dunes? It makes a return here. And at a sufficiently high level, he is actually right! I still absolutely adore the Chaos Index and its implementation here is inspired – the write-up does mention a couple REALLY weird happenstances and customs taking place in the city of the weird’s rising. I actually found myself wishing we’d get more. This also btw. interacts with the brief news of the day generator, which basically doubles as 20 adventure hooks.
But let’s return to the contradas: Each of them also sports a brief table of sample buildings, though one is mislabeled as “random encounters.” It should also be noted that the pdf includes a few choice sample sentences from the mouths of the illustrious NPCs found within the city, to give you a feeling for how to portray them. Speaking of the NPCs – in a city, where cons are pretty much a way of life (the book even explains popular cons, both long and short!), the freakishly honest Fraža makes for a great sample NPC: This guy is a fair curio dealer, but due to a curse, he has no filter whatsoever regarding his thoughts, explaining to non-humans in detail why he secretly hates and fears them. There is a former anti-cleric of the Anti-World-Turtle. And don’t cross the suave and immaculately-dressed František, the checkered mage and basically what constitutes the city’s foremost magic-user. Speaking of which: The book does come with a MASSIVE marketplace section, noting spells for sale by aforementioned mage, hirelings, mundane items, the prices demanded by the seer’s guild…and the cost of killing people.
You see, Marlinko is chaotic and weird, as such, there is sanctioned and unsanctioned crime, and yes, there is an official guild that nominally requires a proof of wronging and operates only for citizens…but unsurprisingly, that is no hard guideline whatsoever…Now, one of my favorite concepts presented by Jeff Rients would obviously be the carousing rules, and I’m certainly not the only one. In a city as weird and in flux as Marlinko, I very much welcomed the inclusion of a dedicated carousing section, with different sections for the contradas and adventuring potential galore. So yes, the whole city section is pretty much amazing.
Now, as mentioned before, the book also presents two brief adventure locales/mini-dungeons if you will. Together, these, including their maps, take up slightly more than 10 pages of the supplement. The first would be the abode of a strigoi, who is also a major mover and shaker in the city. While zombie maids and a Mr. Mxyzptlk-reference made me smile, the location simply doesn’t have the room to live up to its potential. This is further exacerbated in the second adventure locale, which depicts the Catacombs of the Blood Jesus. The latter made me really sad, for the premise is amazing: Picture a drunkard priest from our world stranding in Marlinko, proselytizing and unwittingly getting a cult going, one that emphasis divine cannibalism and blood-drinking. Do nun-maenads sound cool? Yeah, they are. However, much like the first locale, the dungeon, while interesting and neat, doesn’t really live up to the amazing and bonkers potential its premise deserves. There is so much weirdness you could get going here…
Don’t get me wrong, these two locations aren’t bad per se; but they simply don’t live up to how great the actual city supplement section is. Even after all of the things I mentioned, I have only given you a taste of the creativity within this book.
Editing and formatting are good; I noticed a few minor hiccups in both formal and rules-language criteria. Layout adheres to a no-frills 1-column b/w-standard, and the supplement sports a couple of really nice original b/w-artworks by Jeremy Duncan and Jason Sholtis. The isometric b/w-cartography for the locales and color for the city by Luka Rejec is fantastic, but the lack of player-friendly versions is a strike against them. Similarly, the dungeon-maps lack a scale, which makes judging distance problematic. They are thus beautiful, but not particularly useful. The print version has a white spine without its name on it. More annoyingly, the pdf version, as mentioned, has no bookmarks, which, particularly for a book like this that requires page-flipping and quick navigation, a huge no-go. Detract a whole star from my final verdict for the pdf version.
Chris Kutalik’s Marlinko is indeed a fever-dream, and an amazing one; I’ve had enough of them as a child to recognize the aesthetic and tone, and it is BRILLIANT. The city section, the contradas, the NPCs – everything is quirky, and the hilarious and audacious blend with the odd and horrific in a most inspiring of ways. Marlinko is a city like no other and manages to evoke a surprising sense of consistency. I really wished this supplement had been longer and it left me wanting more! The writing, in short, is excellent. However, the rules-relevant components are less impressive when e.g. compared to what Necrotic Gnome Productions brings to the table for Labyrinth Lord. The adventure locations, while both nice, fell flat in direct comparison, at least for me. Both have promising concepts and notions, but both, perhaps due to a lack of space, can’t properly develop their cool concepts. They would have been better served as stand-alone modules. Particularly since Marlinko could have very much used the space they take up to elaborate further on the intoxicating and captivating atmosphere of weirdness it evokes.
How to rate this, then? Well, the city supplement sections as such deserve 5 stars + seal of approval; the adventure locales come in at a 4 stars; and then there would be the bookmarks/maps/etc. issues I mentioned. As a person, I love Marlinko. I really do. For me, this is a 5 star + seal of approval settlement; however, as a reviewer, I have to take the shortcomings this does have into account – and as such, I can’t go higher than 4 stars for it. However, since I really enjoyed the city as such, this does receive my seal of approval.
You can get this unique, and often hilarious, city here on OBS!
You can find aforementioned map-pack here on OBS!