Misty Isles of the Eld (OSR)
The third of the Hill Cantons-Sandboxes clocks in at 103 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 97 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so theoretically, you can fit up to 4 pages on a given sheet of paper when printing this. HOWEVER, I STRONGLY suggest getting the PoD-version. The pdf lacks bookmarks, which is a huge downside for a book of this size. I do own the PoD-version, which btw. comes with name on the spine and all, and the review is primarily based on that version of the book, though I did consult the pdf as well.
So, what is this? One could consider this to be a cross between a regional sourcebook of a plug-and-play mini-setting/environment, a pointcrawl adventure, and/or a massive ecology of the eponymous eld. All of these are true to an extent. While nominally, the module component of this supplement is intended for 4 – 7 PCs, with a total of 14 – 20 levels, the misty isles can easily challenge higher-level PCs, particularly if they’re not smart. A referee could easily escalate things, just fyi. Rules-wise, this has been written for use with labyrinth Lord and B/X and is easily adapted to other OSR rules-sets.
While this adventure/sandbox takes place in the Hill Canton world, unlike Slumbering Ursine Dunes and the Fever-Dreaming Marlinko supplement, it may be inserted more easily into other worlds: Shrouded by mists, the eponymous isle can replace other components of the campaign setting in an invasive manner not unlike Ravenloft; indeed, traversing the mists (which is codified in rules) is a risky endeavor, and has a good chance of wrecking the PC’s vessel.
This is, however, where similarities with Ravenloft cease. The supplement calls this chart btw. the “Fuck, we sailed into the mist”-chart. So yeah, this does include vulgarity, PG 13 references to sexuality, and has a tone that is firmly tongue in cheek, but without ever becoming annoying. This is pretty impressive, as usually, opinionated writers constantly interjecting stuff into their works tends to annoy me to hell and back. Here, the metacommentary is left firmly on the referee-side of things, and actually managed to make the reading experience here more fun. One favorite to give you an example, drawn from the description in a creature table: “Hell-Marines are as subtle as a second edition plotted adventure. “ If that didn’t get a laugh or at least chuckle out of you, then you never played a 2nd edition plotted adventure. ;P
One of the reasons this works so well is the fact that the eld are depicted as pretty much absolutely HORRIFIC. Capital letters EVIL. Yet also kinda hilarious. Tonal control, though? It rests solely in the hands of the GM. You could emphasize the darker aspects and make this a grimdark, surreal hellscape, an incredibly funny romp – or, if your referee-mojo is up to the task, you could use this in its best way: As both.
The following, while containing mostly discussion of mechanics, does contain SPOILERS for some of the weird stuff to be found. If you plan to partake in this as a player, please stop reading NOW.
All right, only referees around?
All right, but the book does have more to offer than being an adventure-locale, so let’s take a look at that stuff first! So, this pdf does include a new class, the psychonaut, which is a take on a quick and easy to use psionics system and class that can easily coexist with e.g. P/X: Basic Psionics Handbook (review forthcoming): The psychonaut gets d6 HD, must have Int 11 and Wisdom 14, and uses the magic-user’s XP-progression, though level 8, the final level of the class takes 10 K XP more than the magis-user’s, requiring 160,000 XP to attain. At 3rd level and every odd level thereafter, the class gets a defective mutation, which means you roll a d6: On a 1-4, you roll a d20 on the physical deformation table (which may net you a withered arm, a rotted nose, a third nipple, etc. – these can be purely cosmetic, or have rules-relevant repercussions, though they are never pure drawbacks, always also featuring benefits. On a 5-6 on the initial d6 roll, you get a mental deformation. These may, for example, include Psychobabble. To quote the book: “There is a 25% chance that this character will begin shouting in a manic, incoherent manner each time she opens her mouth to speak (much as though she was speaking in tongues). This condition will persist for 1d6 turns. Strangely, religious zealots and oral health specialists will understand the character just fine.” That made me laugh.
The psychonaut starts with a 1st level power, powers are organized in 4 levels, and the class gets up to 4 1st level powers, 3 2nd and 3rd level powers, and 2 4th level powers. The powers note how often per day they can be used, and 6 1st level powers, 7 2nd level powers, 6 3rd level powers and 6 4th level powers are provided; some of these duplicate spells and note how often they can be used, which provides enough guidance to craft your own powers yourself. Powers include the mighty mook-sweeping brainsploder, quips so biting they may see you rocking for days on end, and e.g. the antiorgasm. You see, eld are colossal pricks. They have antiorgone weaponry that will wreck your sex-life, and this ability is one of the debuffs that taps into this concept.
This can also be seen among the eld artifacts – you see, the eld hail from the Cold Hell, and are basically Lawful Evil, decadent elves with elongated heads, a flair for industrial art deco, and a penchant for biomancy and super-science. They also ooze David Bowie. As such, eld artifacts are plentiful and include e.g. antiorgone grenades, mighty blastotubes guns that fire razor discs that may decapitate you on a crit, self-cranking crossbows, items that can generate ice, plasma welders…and there is the intelligent and mighty mustache of grappling. Yes, you can move on it. Dr McNinja would be proud. And I have but touched the surface here – from hoverchairs to their bubblecars, the strange tech the eld employ very much defines them as antagonists, and a random tables to determine shapes and functions can allow you to further improvise more artifacts. And yes, it is very much intended that PCs experiment with this: The artifacts are grouped in 4 classes, which require an increasing amount of d6s to be rolled under Intelligence, and if you succeed, the less complex ones can be taught to others, provided they’re smart enough. Some artifacts also require a combined high Int and Wis and psionic abilities. This easy to use engine is elegant and makes interacting with NPCs desirable and provides an interesting leverage versus murder-hoboing PCs: “You know, I can teach you to use these could flying bubblecars and their fireball-burst weaponry…”
The bestiary section also mirrors the focus on the eld – there is a massive, bloated face with tine baby arms and bone ridges that terminate in gatling gun-like born shards. There are the purple-boned intelligent servitor ghuls with their translucent skin and strangely inborn belief in a religion of liberating flesh; there are the vatborn creatures of the eld, symbiotic mental worms, flesh blobs and energy things created by eld artifacts. Masokocka, the meatkitty, is the cloven-hoofed hunting animal of the eld, and even their weirdo domestic animals are odd. The eld are wicked – they have created a whole race as a practical joke, the stygian hound: A dog that’s perpetually (and painfully!) on fire. See how this could be utterly tragic and horrible, or kinda funny, depending on how you play it? That’s the strength here, the impossible tightrope act that the author constantly performs with panache aplomb. For every horrific deed, there’s a line like the acknowledgement that the eld have decided not to defecate, because it’s undignified. (Plus, obvious, a leader who has a golden-plated, decadent toilet in a secret room as a secret vice…) And yes, this may sound puerile. Rest assured, it is not. One final note on the creatures – they are good, but not all are as interesting as some of the best ones out there; they do their job at depicting the unique ecology of the eld, though, and this is only worth mentioning in contrast to the excellence of the remainder of the book.
All right, this is as far as I’ll be going into the mechanical components of the book, so let’s talk about the proper adventure-sections, shall we? This means that the following contains SERIOUS SPOILERS. Potential players should definitely jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So, beyond the hooks (which do tie in with the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Hill Canton Lore), the isles take an interesting twist: Being particularly lawful, the isles of the eld are only within the world, courtesy due to the energies coursing through them, which are measured by the anti-chaos index. The PCs destabilizing their operations actually will shift the realities of the isle. The isle itself…is easily one of the most unique and astonishing locales I have seen in my entire reviewer’s career. Not hyperbole.
Picture a mist-shrouded isle of black sands, where ginormous ridges of stone allow for pointcrawling between their majestic elevations (for an explanation of pointcrawling: Basically picture overland adventuring from keyed locale to keyed locale; a more detailed explanation can be found in my Slumbering Ursine Dunes-review); a heavy charcoal-cloud laden sky looms over all, and personally, I’d like to imagine all tinted in a greenish tint in an eternal predawn twilight. No winds howl between the ridges – who btw. are gigantic grubs that may well pupate into quarter-mile moths on gossamer wings in a tantalizing, local apocalypse for the eld.
Speaking of whom: The artworks provided for eld, structures and servitor creatures (like vatmen – clad in black vinyl-like material, with pallid human faces and a horn that extends from their forehead, expressing their emotional state in a kind of…phallic protrusion) are lavishly illustrated by Luka Rejec, whose blend of art déco, eastern quasi-Japanese aesthetics, 70s heavy metal psychedelica and Bowie-esque strangeness generate an astounding visual identity for the eld. One that is deliberate in the best of ways, with non-eld characters, like a mute and friendly albino minotaur paladin that the PCs can ally with, deliberately being drawn in another style. Same goes for the vistas of the locations, who tend to be more realistic, using a strange blend of the industrial, pseudo-Eastern, and the monolithic structures one would associate with games like Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, etc.
Art and text provide a surprisingly holistic totality here, and we do get artworks for key eld leaders, and we do get the command structure explained – and different alarm levels as well as the edlish defense plan. Eld patrol random encounters come with detailed strategies and write-ups, and reinforcements sent by the mighty overmind of the race allow the referee to amp up the danger significantly, when e.g. Über-Lieutnant Mozz is concerned. I also got a chuckle out of an Eminem-reference of all things in the descriptive text of Mid-Altern Virmuun – certainly did not expect to see that here. These leaders btw. also come with a bit of sample quotes.
Beyond the massive point-crawl over the isle, we have 4 different mini-dungeons/adventure locales. Now, in the previous Hill Canton books, these did tend to be somewhat weaker than the rest of the book. This is NOT the case here: We have a monument that chains the 5th god of Marlinko; a delightfully strange eld plantation; a pretentious city of majestic pagodas that actually are home of the local leader, but also pretty much an empty shell, akin to a Hollywood scenery, and there would be the nightmarish industrial vat complex, which has been taken over (at least half of it!) by a demon from the Hot Hells, who was freed when a possessed kid was fed to the flesh vat tubes. This is the darkest complex, and definitely the one that will make the PCs want to exterminate the eld, if the rest hasn’t aready done the trick. All of these locations come with b/w-maps that are really cool, but lack a player-friendly, unlabeled version for VTT-use or guys like yours truly that like to cut up maps and hand them to players as they explore. Said demon, btw.? Morbidly obese and acne-ridden. And thankfully slow, so “kiting” is actually kind of encouraged here. Did I mention that the PCs can save Samuel Taylor Coleridge from a grisly fate, who is convinced he is trapped in a particularly nasty opium-dream? Did I mention the deformed outcast psychonaut eld with the multiple-personality disorder that developed due to having two brains? Or the eld caught in amber-like resin, forever staring at cascading waves in a bathtub? The secretariat, where tiny, purple-furred, 4-eyed pseudo-monkeys madly punch at typewriters, keeping eld bureaucracy running, while vat-born giants lumber 3/4th of the reports in an incinerator, the rest to the overmind?
Where in previous Hill Cantons books, the respective dungeons never managed to capture the weirdness and unique tone of the upper world, this book seamlessly combines them in a unified aesthetic and level of quality.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard with a ton of great original artworks that have a truly distinct style. Cartography is b/w and well done, but the lack of player-friendly, unlabeled maps is a bummer and the one downside of this book. The pdf, as noted, has no bookmarks, which is a huge detriment – I strongly suggest getting the print version. For the pdf-version, you should detract a star from the final rating.
Chris Kutalik, with additional design by Robert Parker, has surpassed the first two Hill Canton books, which already were excellent offerings. The Misty Isles of the Eld, though? They are masterclass level of design and writing. This book has more jamais-vu coolness inside than most whole product-lines; the unified aesthetics of the eld, their tools and all – it comes together neat, seamlessly and all is subservient to the requirements of the referee: Counter strategies, cool NPC-dynamics, flavorful tidbits…you won’t read a single page in this book that does not have some sort of brilliant idea, funny component or downright creative and outré component. Sure, we have seen bubble cars before – but not like this. We have seen evil elves before – but the eld have NOTHING in common with drow and are totally and utterly distinct.
The blackened shores of this isle have actually invaded my dreams, managing what precious few books achieve. I have had this book for more than a year as per the writing of this review, and rereading it, going through it with a fine-toothed comb, it has lost nothing of its impact, its splendor. I’d go so far and claim that this book is worth buying, even if you don’t play OSR-games. The ideas herein are so cool, so dense in how much awesome stuff is within these pages, that it’s worth its price even when divorced of its rules. This is easily one of my all-time favorite OSR-books out there, and, in spite of the lack of unlabeled maps, it is most assuredly worth 5 stars + seal of approval, and gets my best-of tag to boot. If you are even remotely interested in a book that dares to be different and brilliant, in something novel, then get this ASAP. One final suggestion: If you want to increase the eld’s biomancy-angle, adding Gavin Norman’s “The Complete Vivimancer” to the fray can add yet another facet to an already radiant gem of a book.
You can get this amazing gem of a book here on OBS!
You can directly support the Hill Canton creator here on patreon!