I was reading and reviewing Wizard of the Coast’s Out of the Abyss, which is fundamentally a decent campaign book about the Underdark. It’s likely the best that Wizard’s has produced for 5E, but that means that compared to the recently, long rumored and carefully produced Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess (with production by Jez Gordon) published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess it’s 255 pages of flabby, dead writing, dull illustration and unimaginative dross. This isn’t to say Out of the Abyss is bad, it’s got some great bits, and tries hard to bring the weird and evocatively wonderful to 5th edition D&D, it’s just that it’s written by a committee of people with worse vocabularies, weaker minds, lesser imaginations and far far less love for their creation then the author and artist of Veins of the Earth. Out of the Abyss isn’t a waste, but it won’t make you think, feel and want to run an Underdark game the way Veins of the Earth will.
|This just seems appropriate|
I am unsure about the quality of the physical book, though knowing the work that Lamentations of the Flame Princess puts into its physical products I suspect it’s very good. The PDF is serviceable, though displaying as a double page spread and using a clear, but somewhat degraded typeface means one has to enlarge it a fair bit to read, scrolling about in a 350 plus page PDF. I appreciate that unlike many DIY projects Veins of the Earth doesn’t use giant lettering and a few paragraphs per page and even though it's dense, Veins' layout is clear and breaks the text up into nice manageable chunks. The real hero here appears to be Jez Gordon, who has consistently provided both excellent art (he is not the artist for Veins) and stellar layout on everything he’s been involved in. Scrap Princess’ art in Veins of the Earth is also excellent, and it’s consistency and volume is a fine compliment to the text, with gestural, primal boldness that conceals details of Veins’ dark underworld while inspiring the reader with shapes and an overall sense of frenzied, jagged, contrast.
Veins of the Earth begins with an introduction that is more philosophical then practical, it’s interesting, and if it makes you think the rest of the book is for you - if it makes you go “Where’s the Drow, especially those sexy Drow ladies?” you are likely to enjoy Out of the Abyss or perhaps a Jager-bomb far more. After the introduction Veins of the Earth moves directly into a monster manual. There’s something daring in this, but it works, the monsters are (as one would expect for the author of Fire on the Velvet Horizon) unique, evocative, and many potentially campaign changing. Like all the content in Veins of the Earth its creatures vary from the horrifyingly disgusting (diseased undying corpses wracked by specific maladies and muttering terrible personal secrets) to the bizarrely majestic (giant beetle larva with a cocoon of magical weapons), with a bit that is inexplicably silly (the meta-game commentary hero hunting inter-dimensional angler fish). Fungus people are included of course, and as always in D&D they are somewhat played for laughs. I aso have a general aversion to Bestiaries and Monster Manuals so that this part didn't entirely turn me off is praise in itself.
I don’t especially like the monsters that are jokes, but the ones that are not tend to offer a certain type of psychological and physical horror unique to Stuart’s work. Many are very disturbing, but also compelling and have a strong internal logic and coherency. Even the most horrible provide a kind of sadness and space for GM sympathy. It’s unclear how much of this will translate to the player experience of these creatures - though most aren’t simply murderous attackers and the text encourages interaction so perhaps a fair bit.
Within the monster section of Veins of the Earth are also some underground races, entirely different from the typical Underdark people (expect for the humorous fungus people), but as corrupt, alien and terrible as the Drow of Gygax’s Descent into the Earth modules. The Knotsmen are the best of these - The Knotsmen are simply terrible underground dwelling humans, long warped by life under the earth and by pacts with terrible demons. Knotsmen are unique, disconcerting, obsessed with debt, bureaucracy, slavery and torture. They are perhaps Drow analogues (they are not the only Drow analogues though - there are terrible dream aelfs to fulfill that role as well) in Veins' Underdark - they even constantly produce renegades, but no one will ever want to play one.
Fully half the book is monsters - most are very good, many are very good and very strange. All are illustrated and thought provoking. A few are silly a bit jarring in the context of the rest of the setting, but more are not simply monsters, but large scale setting components, suggesting entire campaigns or adventures built around them. The large number of these unique ‘dragon scale’ monsters in Veins of the Earth goes a fair way in providing setting underpinnings, but what the creature catalogue doesn’t reach the second half of the book manages to do well through rules and setting tidbits.
|An example of one of the monsters, the art and the layout of Veins|
Veins continues by describing key races: The Aelf-Adel (Dream elves that hate the waking/living world), the Deep Janeen (Solitary elemental aesthetes of great power and haughty destructive tendencies), the dErO (Chaotic, thought control obsessed, meta-game driven gnome things with giant heads and conspiracy theories), Dvagir (Dwarves whose society is a work focused machine to eugenically produce better and better generations), Substratals (Entirely alien earth elementals), and Gnonmen (Quiet, life protecting, action focused deep gnomes). Each of these races is described differently, the Deep Janeen as a series of tables, the Aelf-Adel as a history and extended metaphor, and the dErO as a series of fragmentary contradictions (almost a poem). Some approaches work better than others, all are interesting, though some of the weaker (the dErO) could use a bit more attention to the GM facing content, providing context of how to use them in play. It’s pretty obvious that these ‘new’ Underdark races reflect the classics - Drow, Duergar, Deep Gnomes, Derro and maybe Mind Flayers, but the Veins of the Earth varieties are less comprehensible, with entirely alien personalities and goals. This offers a potential well of really interesting interactions and might be a component of a very strange environment, but as presented it is more a set of tools to build faction interaction, then a real structure for faction based Underdark games.
Starting on page 187 (of 375) Veins of the Earth gets to the part I find interesting, and the part that really puts it far above other Underdark products like Out of the Abyss. The monsters described previously are largely fun, unique and excellently imagined with interesting special mechanics and characterization. The Underdark races provided offer mostly wonderful description that properly expresses the concept that deep dwelling dwarfs are more than avaricious humans or deep dwelling elves more than spider worshiping goth sadists. Both are really, really different than people and whether this is shown through providing a flowchart for their decision making or carefully and poetically mapping the grandeur and enormity of their hatred, the lack of humanity is described in a way that one can almost understand and hopefully use. Page 187 however, is where the cave exploration and light rules start. Not just a unique set of minor rules changes (including a very useful encumbrance system, akin to my own favored ‘significant item’ based system), but well thought out and illustrative advice on how to play with these rules to give the maximum impact.
The three page section on lamps alone provides more setting material then most gazetteers, and sockets into a useful initiative, movement, treasure and wilderness rule set. These rules are good - they are derivative of/built around the same time and with the same exploration based goals as the sorts of rules I and I many other OSR bloggers have long enjoyed. I won’t go into the rules in detail, but they put more risk and complexity in some of the places where it should be important for underground exploration while remaining mostly straightforward.
After some 40 pages of rules Veins of the Earth moves on to a setting construction kit, for designing the ‘Veins’ themselves. Mostly this is given to randomly generating cavern systems, and the rules provided are quite fun, encouraging three dimensional description and design over the classic top down approach, and also combining the two. It’s maybe a bit kludgy, a bit complex - but it does things that most map and adventure design approaches don’t, and unlike any other Underdark concept - from Out of the Abyss to the hoary Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, Veins of the Earth delivers a mechanism for providing great variety in its Underdark and a robust procedural generation system to utilize it. Yes, this section also includes a large number (A d100 worth) of specific caves/special locations, each written with a great deal of imagination and evocative details. This section is wonderful, because even for a GM that wanted to play a much more traditional Underdark, say using Out of the Abyss, in forty pages Veins provides a fairly approachable way of making wilderness travel scale (i.e. day by day travel) interesting, evocative and far from abstract. The party will cross and float down rivers, ascend and descend spirally burrows, brave fungal fissures, and travel along fault carved canyons, all of which the GM can narrate as a strange world filled with far more, ever changing detail then I have seen in any other Underdark setting product. Better, this wilderness travel of landmarks and actual environments is easily converted to something denser and more granular through tables and mechanics that generate individual cave systems. If this section is the heart of Veins of the Earth, it is a very good heart.
More rules follow - cruel cannibal rules, regarding food, madness and survival that feel solidly rooted in the sprawling three dimensional Underdark that using Veins' as suggested will generate. After that there are more tables and appendices of unique, chthonian spells, treasures and encounters as well as odd digressions such as Knotsmen symbols and a creepy description of twelve kinds of strange darkness.
Veins of the Earth is a setting book that is big on high level ideas, strange minutia, and providing functional tweaks to the standard ‘OSR’ ruleset (or specifically to Lamentations of the Flame Princess - but really that’s just Moldvay Basic with a few clear changes) to make Underdark play more flavorful. It does this and it does this well. While a few sections feel tonally out of place (too silly or gonzo) and others feel less useful for play (some of the underdark society descriptions especially) there’s so much in Veins of the Earth and it’s consistently provided at the highest levels of quality for tabletop game products. There will of course be complaints - about the art and the writing being too experimental, arty or strange - but these critics miss the point of Veins as an exploration of an alien world filled with ideas that are utter madness to everyday human sensibilities, but sensible in the setting it builds so effectively. Moreover, Veins makes no apologies for being a complex work, unlike much tabletop material, it trusts its readers to be creative, perceptive and to want inspiration rather than simply 'can’t fail' procedures. Evocative hints, and inspiring prose rather than excessive rules driven explanation alone would make Veins of the Earth an outstanding setting book, but the way it marries mechanics to setting intent and mood of play is a very rare accomplishment.
Veins of the Earth is one of the few tabletop products that I will undoubtedly use, not just to pull elements or ideas, but rolling on the tables and using content directly from its pages.